Janesville overcomes tarnished image

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Jim Leute
Sunday, December 15, 2013

Driving through Janesville, Wisconsin, in a downpour, looking past the wipers and through windows fogged up with cigarette smoke, Main Street appears to be melting away. The rain falls hard and makes a lonesome going-away sound like a river sucking downstream. And the old hotel, without a single light, tells you the best days around here are gone. I always smoke when I go to funerals. I work in Detroit. And when I look out the windshield or into people's eyes here, I see a little Detroit in the making.

 •  •  •

It might surprise the writer of those words that downtown Janesville hasn't melted away.

Its revitalization isn't up for any awards, but it hasn't been sucked into the river that bisects it, either.

The lights aren't on at the Monterey Hotel, but then they hadn't been lit for years before journalist Charlie LeDuff visited Janesville for a piece he was writing for Mother Jones magazine.

“End of the Line” appeared in the magazine in the fall of 2009, several months after the last General Motors' employees left the plant in Janesville. The 10-page spread included several photographs that long-time residents wouldn't recognize, then or now.

These days, the story is still available online, but the headline has been changed to “Hard Times in Paul Ryan's Hometown,” even though Paul Ryan is never mentioned beyond the headline.

LeDuff wasn't alone in his descent on Janesville.

In the months after GM closed, national and international reporters visited Janesville, sometimes filing stories that made community leaders cringe.

Many of stories portrayed Janesville as a community not long for the world.

“One of the big challenges we had from the beginning and why we've spent a lot of time, money and attention on our image as a community is what resulted from that negative attention,” said John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville. “I am of the opinion that some of those negative articles—in particular the Mother Jones one—was not about us, it was about an agenda they had for their audience.

“The research and the info they collected was very selectively put together in such a way to really write a story that was written before they got here.”

Bob Borremans, executive director of the Southwest Workforce Development Board, and James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager, remember the stories well.

“It was very convenient to pile on the GM story,” Otterstein said.

After parachuting into town in 2009, few reporters have returned to Rock County to see what's happened in the interim, Borremans said.

“There was a Finnish team of reporters that came back in 2010, but no one from out of the area has called me in the last two years,” he said.

“I don't know that any of them really took the time to see what was going on here. I think they came in and wanted to paint a picture that set a certain tone during political campaigns.”

 •  •  •

Janesville is still a nice place. They still cut the grass along the riverbank. The churches are still full on Sunday. The farmers still get up before dawn. But there are little telltale signs, the details, the darkening clouds.

The strip club across the street from the plant is now an Alcoholics Anonymous joint. There are too many people in the welfare line who never would have imagined themselves there. Dim prospects and empty buildings. A motel where the neon “Vacancy” sign never seems to say “No Vacancy.”

 •  •  •

That portrayal—and others—took a toll on Janesville's image.

Community leaders and economic development officials recognized the need to mute that story whenever and wherever they could, Beckord said.

“It really did hurt our brand and our image around the state, around the country and in some ways it actually seeped into the way of thinking of people who actually live here,” he said. “The image was that this community was dying on the vine.”

Beckord and others countered the death knell stories with a different one.

“It's a story of a community more diverse than most people thought, a community with the building blocks for a solid recovery and, quite frankly, a community that offers remarkable opportunity to companies who want to grow and hire good people,” Beckord said.

“… You have to think of economic development as a long-term proposition. The seed you plant today may not really show any fruit five or 10 years from now, but it is the communities that are constantly planting those seeds that have the kind of sustainable growth we are starting to see here.”

•  •  •

A little Detroit in the making, except Detroit has General Motors and Ford and Chrysler. Detroit is an industry town. Janesville had only General Motors. Janesville was a company town. You didn't have to go to college—but you might be able to send your kid there—because there was always GM. GM—Gimme Mine. GM—Grandma Moo, the golden cow. Now GM has Gone Missing. GM has Gone to Mexico.

 •  •  •

The secondary headline on LeDuff's Mother Jones online piece says GM once guaranteed the people of Janesville a good wage for a hard job.

“Is the city becoming a symbol of the new austerity that leaves the poor behind?” it asks.

Hardly, respond Beckord and Bob Borremans, executive director of the Southwest Workforce Development Board, which has been at the forefront of job training and re-employment efforts since GM closed.

“I think from a pure numbers perspective, Janesville is doing better than Beloit, and I don't think you could even argue that Beloit is the face of new poverty,” Borremans said. “On the surface, there are no real blighted areas, and the stuff we do have we've had for decades.

“I'm not convinced this is the new poverty.”

The local economy has most certainly changed, and wages are not what they once were, Beckord said.

Still, he said, the economy is far more diversified than it ever was, and it's anchored by a long list of companies that have clawed their way out of the Great Recession and posted impressive growth.

“Man, if this is a recession, we're in good shape because there's so much positive news on the economic development front, there's so much growth,” he said. “Look at our trend in local retail sales.

“That is a direct reflection of people's confidence and their disposable income.”

 •  •  •

 … Maybe they will have it back. The recession is loosening its grip, some say. Some towns will rebound. Some plants will retrofit. Wind, solar, electric—that's the future, Washington says. But you get a pain-in-the-throat feeling that it is not the future. Not really. At least not as good a future as the past. There's no 28 bucks an hour for life in that future. No two-car garage. No bennies. No boat on Lake Michigan…

 •  •  •

Beckord and Borremans agree that the days of $28 per hour manufacturing jobs are gone.

They aren't coming back, and rather than bemoan the fact, they and others have instead worked to develop a reinvented economy based on diversification and slow incremental growth.

“I don't know what it's going to take to get some folks to flip to a more optimistic view of where we are and where we're going,” Beckord said. “When you look at the number of companies that have remained and grown here, there's just so much good news that it's hard for me to understand the thinking that some people still have that we're sucking wind because we're not.”

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