Our Views: We're building a new economy

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Five years after General Motors steered out of Janesville, two things are evident: Much has been accomplished, and much work remains.

The Gazette's series Sunday and Monday reflected on how GM's closing affected the local economy and what the future might hold for the shuttered factory. The stories should leave residents hopeful. Sure, Rock County lost 2,300 manufacturing jobs amid the twin blows of GM's closing and the Great Recession. While $28-per-hour paychecks are gone, average hourly earnings haven't fallen as you might expect. Average pay was $21.69 per hour through August, about the same as in 2008.

Granted, many families suffered. Some workers retrained for jobs that did not exist. Foreclosures skyrocketed as families couldn't afford mortgages or sell their homes. Bread winners commuted to out-of-state auto factories, splitting families. Still, others adjusted and became accustomed to living on less income.

Those who thought Janesville would become a ghost town—including national journalists who tried to paint pictures fitting that premise—were mistaken.

Rock County 5.0, the five-year public-private economic development initiative, led us in a new direction. Elected officials offered incentives for companies to expand. Data Dimensions, United Alloy, Seneca Foods, GOEX and many others have grown and created jobs. Middleton-based SHINE wants to build a medical isotope factory on Janesville's south side. That project could lure other medical technology companies.

While manufacturing still lags, sectors such as wholesale trade and professional/business services have made solid gains. The opening of St. Mary's Janesville Hospital led strong job growth in health care.

Educational institutions are looking to the future, as well. Blackhawk Technical College plans to open an Advanced Manufacturing Training Center in a vacant factory in Milton. The county just approved UW-Rock County's proposed first dorm to help attract students. The Janesville School District wants to attract Chinese students, boosting enrollment, creating cultural diversity in classrooms and perhaps bringing investments in ventures we can't yet imagine.

As for the huge tract of idled industrial property on the south side, those who still hold hopes that GM will return seem too optimistic. Odds appear good that GM will release the plant in 2015 when it strikes a new deal with the United Auto Workers. The city of Janesville is exploring the idea of relocating the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds onto half of what might be 200 acres. The other half, with great transportation and utility infrastructure, might attract new industrial developments.

The fairgrounds idea is intriguing. The fairgrounds are landlocked on 18.5 acres but host year-round events that boost Janesville's economy. The city is right to explore a way to keep the fairgrounds here rather than let them move to an agricultural consortium's land near Evansville. If relocating the fairgrounds to the south side means building a new convention/exposition center, that could further boost our economy. Much work and public and private dollars would be needed to make it all happen. City, county and fair officials, however, are wise to explore the idea now, before 2015 is upon us.

Regardless of whether such talks lead to action, the hard work, commitment and confidence by many people and companies have helped our economy diversify. It no longer is susceptible to the auto industry's peaks and valleys.

John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, summarized it well: “The circumstances that we found ourselves in were extremely challenging, and to have come this far, this fast is really gratifying.”

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