Downtown businesses prepare for ARISE alongside city
JANESVILLE—Bill Sodemann has owned and operated a business in downtown Janesville since 1984, and he's just now starting to see the fruits of the city's and other businesses' labors.
There has been talk for years of making downtown Janesville a destination like it was decades ago, but only recently has it felt like the city was making a concentrated effort to influence change, Sodemann said.
As work begins on the ARISE plan to revamp downtown Janesville, it's not just city officials making an effort. In recent months, while the city converted Milwaukee Street to two-way traffic and tore down the parking plaza, several downtown businesses have done fašade, interior and other work of their own.
Economic Development Coordinator Dayna Sarver doesn't think it's a coincidence. People have been calling the city more and more often, asking what they can do to improve their properties and what the next steps are, Sarver said.
“I think we're seeing more activity occur since the adoption of ARISE, and I think with the parking deck coming down and people seeing the commitment that the city has to the downtown, we're definitely getting more interest,” she said.
Sodemann owns the building at the corner of West Milwaukee and South Franklin streets and one of the businesses inside, Phones Plus.
Sodemann started repairing his rooftop a couple years ago. He always wanted to update his fašade and realized his roof work put him close to the threshold necessary to qualify for historic tax credits. To get the credits, he decided around the same time to update his fašade.
He removed the “ugly” aluminum awnings above his business entrances and re-stained exterior walls, among other things. He'll eventually put up another Phones Plus sign and historic-looking lights.
Sodemann isn't the only one working on his property.
Riley's Sports Bar and Grill has done fašade and interior work. Murals have been painted on outside walls. Other businesses have done storefront work.
“There seems to be some momentum building up,” Sodemann said. “Whether it's a big project, small project, it just seems like a lot of people are starting to do small things, and it's good to feed off each other downtown. It gives you little more hope and confidence that things are going to get better when you see others making the effort, too.”
Sarver said it's the result of a “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” mentality. Business owners will update their properties if they see their neighbors sprucing up theirs, Sarver said.
“I think that as a homeowner, I'm going to maintain my home in the context of my neighborhood. You think about it in the context of downtown, you're going to maintain it to the level of appropriateness of your neighborhood,” she said.
Not only does the work make downtown Janesville more attractive in tandem with ARISE, but it helps the businesses themselves.
According to a nonscientific study Sarver conducted of select downtown Wisconsin businesses before becoming Janesville's economic development coordinator, 80 percent of reporting businesses experienced an increase in the number of first-time customers after completing fašade work, and more than 90 percent saw increased sales.
“If you think of downtown as like your gateway to your community, your fašade is your gateway to your business,” Sarver said.
The city used to have a fašade grant program to encourage such work, but the money eventually ran dry. Now, downtown property owners can use a downtown revolving loan fund to help pay for projects.
The fund is a low-interest, city-sponsored loan business and property owners can use to spruce up downtown parcels. As borrowers pay back their loans, the money can immediately be loaned to someone else, which is where the “revolving” comes in, Sarver said.
Sodemann used the fund for his rooftop, second-story apartment and fašade work. He likes the loan's low interest rates and the relatively simple application process, he said.
“It's hopefully catalytic in its implementation and structure downtown,” Sarver said.
Sodemann recently got a call from Travel Scope, another downtown business, asking about his experience with the loan, so interest is increasing, Sodemann said.
It's something he and the city are happy to see.
“Part of economic development is connecting people with resources and forming these private-public partnerships, and that's really exciting to see that evolution and collaboration between all the different parties toward a shared vision,” Sarver said.
“Hopefully it'll keep on spreading and downtown will look cool again, if you will,” Sodemann said. “It will look a little more attractive.”