Our Views: Proposed Janesville Riverfront Amphitheater great gift to city

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

If the Forward Foundation can pull off Janesville Riverfront Amphitheater plans, the complex should serve as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment.

Sure, this $4.8 million proposal is bound to raise questions. Criticisms the plan has generated are not surprising but disappointing. What about flooding? What about bad weather? Neighbors don't want noise and disruptions. No one will walk that far. Why not keep the riverfront open? Taxpayers will shoulder it. What about other needs?

Forward Janesville's charitable arm has considered these issues and has good responses. Likely, critics represent a small minority and a silent majority supports this special gift to a community in need of one.

The complex would include a stage and restroom, concessions and ticketing building beyond the 100-year floodplain. Grass still would cover most of the expanse between the Janesville Performing Arts Center and Hedberg Public Library. A tasteful fence would be open so residents and visitors could enjoy the riverfront and sculptural architecture when the amphitheater isn't in use.

Every outdoor theater deals with weather, and few have enough parking next door. Organizers have identified sufficient parking within modest walks for small events. For the eight or so annual events that could draw up to 4,200 people, shuttles would run from Craig High School or Dawson Ball Fields. Lack of parking didn't stop music fans from flooding the fairgrounds when Florida Georgia Line performed here last year.

Most amphitheater functions would be small, family-friendly events that attract residents. The calendar might include an antiques show and fair, family movie nights, concerts involving the GoDeans or a Led Zeppelin tribute band, a blues festival, a local battle of the bands, a craft beer fest, a classic car show and wedding receptions.

Organizers say no tax dollars would be needed to build or maintain the complex. The city mows this park property and would still own and mow it.

Plans include a $622,000 maintenance reserve to insulate taxpayers. JPAC, which has a decade of financial management, would operate the complex.

“JPAC is a business that needs to continue to reinvent itself to stay viable, just like all businesses,” JPAC Executive Director Elizabeth Horvath told us by email. “We are committed to being around in the community for a long time, and the outdoor amphitheater will only become a portion of our already-successful 10-year track record of operations.”

Horvath and John Beckord, Forward Janesville's president, say the amphitheater would complement plans for an improved and roofed stage at Lower Courthouse Park. The riverfront amphitheater could stage bigger shows without traffic noise, and both venues could offer simultaneous events during gatherings such as Irish Fest.

The riverfront amphitheater was a key element in the city's 2007 downtown redevelopment plan. Wisconsin demographic projections explain the need, Beckord says.

“Out of 800,000-plus new residents of Wisconsin projected over the next 30 years, only about 15,000 will be of working-age population,” he said. “Communities that can attract young people and families are the ones that are going to have the labor force required to prosper.

“Retirement communities inherently will have a lot of challenges—lower sales tax revenues, lower housing prices—and will find it difficult to get a referendum passed. Companies can't grow here if they can't recruit the talent they need.”

Janesville residents point to Beloit's downtown and riverfront with envy. Beckord respects Beloit's revitalization but said it's wrong to think one or two wealthy families made it happen. He said the 25-year evolution had much taxpayer support.

He knows much fundraising work lies ahead in Janesville, but organizers are optimistic.

“We can do this,” he said. “There are still a lot of people in Janesville who harbor a great deal of pride in this community and are determined to make downtown Janesville into a place that citizens here can be proud of.”

If you want Janesville to move forward, halt the negativity and rally behind what could become southern Wisconsin's premier outdoor entertainment jewel.

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