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Janesville policy changes aim to make downtown a destination

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Jake Magee
Sunday, December 3, 2017

JANESVILLE—Imagine a downtown with relaxed rules on outdoor drinking and music, fun and unusual shops and restaurants, and more money to ensure the area stays attractive and vibrant.

That's the goal of several policy changes the city has implemented over the past several months. Officials said they're evidence of efforts to revitalize downtown and make it a destination.

And they're not done yet.

The city has done plenty of infrastructure work, such as demolishing the parking deck over the Rock River and starting development of the town square. But drawing people downtown takes more than physical changes, City Manager Mark Freitag said.

"I think that with the ARISE plan and the revitalization of our downtown, the infrastructure is just one part to the problem set," he said. "We want to make sure our community is competitive not only for jobs and businesses, but activities and things like that."

Here's a look at recent city actions to boost the downtown's appeal.

Outdoor drinking

Until recently, it was illegal during closed-street downtown events for residents of legal drinking age to enter a bar, buy alcoholic drinks and then take them outside within the event perimeters.

The city council has changed that rule, and residents will be allowed to carry beverages outside with them—a privilege that could benefit future summer events, officials have said.

Organizers of downtown events think the change is overdue.

Last summer, a downtown block was closed for an MDA Tub Run kick-off event. Organizers had hoped attendees could patronize four bars on the block, but they found out the day before the event that carrying open alcoholic drinks outside was illegal.

Instead, they scrambled to get a temporary alcohol license to sell alcohol themselves. The organizers, businesses and residents all lost out, organizer Barry Badertscher has said.

The new ordinance will prevent such situations. It's one way Janesville can remain competitive with other communities that have similar policies and potentially draw more people downtown, Freitag said.

Businesses working together

Janesville's recently approved business improvement district has been decades in the making, and it could help spruce up downtown.

Downtown stakeholders had tried twice to establish such a district, which requires businesses within it to pay extra taxes that are used for snow removal, beautifying areas, making downtown events bigger and more. The effort succeeded this time, in part, because businesses are becoming "believers" and can see the momentum behind downtown revitalization, Freitag said.

District board President Dave Marshick said the district is one of many examples of cooperative efforts to bring people downtown.

"I think the city has been very proactive and very focused on downtown, and it's been a great partnership with the resources and the money, but also looking at policies that make things better and easier for organizations to hold these events and make it more attractive for people to come to," Marshick said.

"Basically, they're listening to us."

Outdoor music

Officials ran into challenges this year as they approved, denied and modified outdoor music permits for businesses throughout the city.

For instance, the Janesville Alcohol License Advisory Committee earlier this year recommended severely restricting an outdoor music license for Hammy's Roadside Bar, 2131 Center Ave., after receiving a petition from 25 neighbors who complained about the noise.

The committee rejected local restaurant operator Ed Quaerna's music permit request for the proposed Rooster's Barrel and Wagon Works on the east side, noting that bands would have performed next to neighbors' backyards.

However, the city council granted an outdoor music permit for Bodacious Olive, 119 N. Main St., in part because the business is located downtown.

The committee and council are more lax about outdoor music permits for downtown businesses because downtowns are entertainment districts, Freitag said.

"The downtown is one of those areas where you do have people living, but it is a downtown, so there's some expectation there's going to be noise in your downtown," Freitag said.

This winter, city officials will consider introducing a noise ordinance so the music doesn't get out of control. Staff will explore peer cities' policies and further research the idea before recommending anything, he said.

Microbreweries

Freitag said he read a recent article in The Atlantic that the presence of craft breweries is one of 11 signs of a successful city.

Until 2015, downtown zoning rules didn't allow for brewpubs. John Rocco and his craft brewer partners requested those rules be changed, and the city complied.

Rock County Brewing Company opened in late 2016.

"This is a business that can be downtown and draw people in, and it's a viable business model," Rocco said. "There's a whole subculture of drinkers out there that seek out craft breweries."

Those who come to drink at Rock County Brewing, which doesn't serve food, might be inclined to grab a bite to eat downtown, spreading the benefit, he said.

Wisconsin has plenty of larger beer brewers, but in the past 20 years or so, microbreweries have taken off. They're a way to draw people downtown and to Janesville in general to try special brews they can't get elsewhere, Freitag said.

"It would be good to have a couple of those here in the downtown," he said.

Revolving loans

The city used to have a fašade grant program to encourage downtown property owners to spruce up their exteriors, but the money eventually evaporated.

City officials then established a downtown revolving loan fund to pay for such projects, to great success.

After two downtown tax increment financing districts closed, the city had about $50,000 left over. The money was used to open the fund, and five local banks donated to bring the total up to $100,000.

Residents can use the fund for low-interest loans to spruce up their properties. As borrowers pay back their loans, the money immediately can be loaned to someone else, which is where the "revolving" comes in, officials have said.

Bill Sodemann of Phones Plus has used the loan to upgrade his building, and interest in the fund has grown since, he and city officials said.

Pop-ups

City Councilman Doug Marklein has an idea to put vacant downtown properties to use: pop-up shops.

Vacant buildings could be pre-approved for certain uses, so those who want to use storefronts for a weekend or some other limited time could come in, set up shop, sell a product and then move on.

Pop-up shop festivals could drum up a lot of activity downtown, Marklein said, and proprietors could test their businesses in a low-risk way by setting up a pop-up first.

City officials think it's a great idea, but no one has yet expressed interest in setting one up, Freitag said.

"The city's all on board to do a pop-up store," he said.



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