Forward Foundation plans to raise $10 million for downtown improvements

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, October 15, 2017

JANESVILLE—By the end of 2017, Forward Janesville's charitable arm could amass half the $10 million it needs to push forward several downtown projects linked to the ARISE riverfront revitalization project.

In a meeting late last week with The Gazette Editorial Board, Forward Janesville President John Beckord said fundraisers working through the Forward Foundation, the chamber of commerce's charitable arm, have recently landed at least one “seven-figure” commitment from a local private donor.

He said other individuals and groups have cut checks recently for hundreds of thousands of dollars or have committed to do so.

Donations the Forward Foundation is handling are intended to be used in projects that a group of downtown stakeholders envision as part of ARISE.

One major private project the group is pitching is a pedestrian bridge that would span the Rock River between Court and Milwaukee streets—an estimated $2.8 million dollar project that Beckord said could include a fountain at its center.

The group's fundraising campaign comes as the city is deep into publicly funded work on the town square project, the core downtown redevelopment project in ARISE underway along South River Street on the west side of the Rock River. 

Fundraisers for the Forward Foundation have been targeting local stakeholders and companies with deep pockets, and one of the group's chief selling points is assurance the city is moving forward on its plans to revitalizing the downtown riverfront corridor, Beckord said.

The city has made significant progress on the town square, despite a wet summer that pushed river levels high and hampered earth moving and concrete work.

In recent days, contractors have been finishing up a terraced plaza that leads to the river and opens up to a new, floating pier. Fresh sod has been laid and trees planted in a park space in the square.

The work is part of about $15 million the city has invested in downtown infrastructure and improvements in the past few years, said City Manager Mark Freitag, who joined Beckord last week in a meeting with the editorial board.

Freitag estimated the city plans to spend $5 million to $6 million more in the next few years on downtown improvements.

Beckord gave The Gazette a glimpse into the the fundraising campaign several days ahead of a planned announcements by AriseNow, a group Forward Janesville is working with in the downtown effort.

Beckord said the group plans to announce some big-ticket donations to the Forward Foundation along with an ARISE project update Thursday at Forward Janesville's Rock Regional Business Luncheon and Expo.

Beckord said he hopes potential private donors would see the city's work this year on the town square and view it as proof the project is gaining both public and private momentum.

"There's a lot of family money and a lot of corporate money (in Janesville). But people are asked (by others), as you know, several times a day for that money,” Beckord said. “You've got to show that this isn't another example of what we've seen in the past -- a lot of hype and not much follow through.”

The city is planning in 2018 to launch a next phase of ARISE by reworking a stretch of South River Street adjacent to the town square.

Freitag said the plan is to convert a section between Court and Milwaukee streets into a “festival street” that would have electrical hookups for vendors and barriers that pop up from the street surface to block traffic during events.

The city also plans to roll out infrastructure projects in 2018 to tear out and replace the Milwaukee Street bridge and convert Court Street downtown to two-way traffic. West Milwaukee Street is due for a resurfacing and streetscape project in 2020, he said. About 80 percent of the Milwaukee Street bridge and resurfacing projects, Freitag pointed out, will be covered by federal funding.

Beckord said Freitag's administration is proving ARISE isn't like past revitalization plans the city has hatched for downtown Janesville—concepts which at first were ballyhooed but ultimately collected dust on a shelf.

“There's stuff going to get done, and it's going to get done on a timeline. There may be some changes along the way, this gets changed and that gets changed, but it is getting done,” Beckord said. “Mark has got people moving, setting dates and checking things off. Getting it done.”

In the near term, the Forward Foundation plans by spring 2018 to start work on a $400,000 interactive fountain in the town square, an example of an ARISE project that's being funded privately. The fountain should be open to the public by summer 2018, Beckord has said.

But Beckord said fundraisers have included in their pitches to donors an estimated $4.8 million private project to build an amphitheater in city space along the east side of the river between the Hedberg Public Library and the Janesville Performing Arts Center.

Forward Janesville, the Janesville Performing Arts Center and a third-party manager have been working through concepts and plans for that project

The amphitheater and pedestrian bridge projects together carry a price tag of nearly $7 million.

The Forward Foundation has operated for the last three decades as a separate entity, a "pass-through" fund that's run and managed by Forward Janesville staff. The foundation operates separately from Forward Janesville, and the chamber of commerce does not profit off the foundation, Beckord said.

Its purpose, according to its own charter, is to “encourage economic development by marketing and promoting activities aimed at attracting new industries to Janesville.”

Its 2016 tax filings show the Forward Foundation had assets of $695,594. Between donations, grants and other revenues the foundation had averaged about $260,000 a year between 2009 and 2016, although contributions to the group in individual years have ranged widely.

Available filings show that in the past five years, about 90 percent of contributions to the Forward Foundation have been from private, non-government sources.

Tax filings on the Forward Foundation's fundraising over the last year weren't immediately available.

The ARISE campaign is probably the biggest fundraising push the group has undertaken, Beckord said.

Beckord said most donors who already have contributed to Forward Foundation's ARISE project fund have not tied donations to specific, projects within ARISE. But Beckord said many of the biggest donors so far, some of them local private companies, have made it clear they see redevelopment through ARISE as a tool to attract professional talent to Janesville.

“We have to be able to attract talent as a community. Those engineers, I.T. and medical professionals have choices. We'd better do everything we can to remain a really safe community, have our school systems be top notch and have recreation and cultural assets that are zesty, fun,” Beckord said.

Beckord realizes some skeptical residents will continue to scoff at both public and private plans to revive downtown. He believes that time, and the changes to come, will prove the skeptics wrong.

“I know there are going to be those naysayers that still say,'Why do we spend another dollar on a dead downtown?'" Beckord said.

"Those folks, they're going to eat those words in about four years.”

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