Fair officials 'thrilled' with possible option to stay in Janesville

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, December 16, 2013

JANESVILLE--Janesville's assistant city manager has pitched a plan to move the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds to the General Motors plant site, and the fair board president said he's thrilled.

 “I'm real thrilled that they stepped up and talked to us,” fair board President John Quinn said.

The majority of fair board members thought the idea is “very viable” and the proposal “exciting,” Quinn said.

Janesville City Council Vice President Matt Kealy, who was briefed on the plan in a closed-door meeting recently, said the fairgrounds is a good option for the GM site if the land becomes available.

Kealy said having a large, open space for the fair and other events would be good for Janesville and all of Rock County.

“I don't think we're ready to home in on this one idea,” Kealy said. “But now is appropriate to look at the reuse of that site.”

The GM property might be available if GM takes the Janesville plant off standby status after expiration of the UAW national contract in 2015.

Assistant City Manger Jay Winzenz, who at the time was acting city manager, drafted the fairgrounds proposal after another group proposed moving the fair to Evansville.

The Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group—SWAG—hopes to build a regional agricultural events and education center in Evansville and recently suggested the Evansville facility could host the fair.

At the time, some suggested Janesville wasn't doing enough to make sure the fair stays in Janesville.

Former fair board member Craig O'Leary, for example, said at a public hearing that a new venue is needed for the fair but fair board members had never “heard a peep” from Janesville officials about the economic benefit the fair provides the city.

Winzenz responded with a map showing what could be done on about 130 acres if GM divests itself of the property.

The fair board is considering a new location after a wildly successful 2013 fair that featured performers whose songs hit No. 1 at fair time. That caused crowding on the 18.5-acre fairgrounds in the middle of Janesville.

The fair board doesn't know if it will move but wants to leave all options open, Quinn said. The fair would need at least 100 acres, and he called the SWAG concept “wonderful.”

SWAG might want to put some of its components in Janesville, Quinn said.

“I would hope that SWAG would come on board, maybe put something down there,” he said referring to the GM fair site.

The GM site is easy to access from Interstate 90/39, Highway 51 and Highway 14 via Delavan Drive, Winzenz said. It is in a central location in the county.

The GM site is about 200 acres. Winzenz said an entertainment complex could be one option on the northern half that could also host the fairgrounds. He suggests the city buy about 28 additional acres along the river, opening access to the river. The city has since the 1920s followed a strategy of buying land along the river.

Officials have talked about putting a community facility on part of the Janesville GM property, said Jay Winzenz, assistant city manager.

A redevelopment company has talked about building greenhouses no that site, and the city could partner with a university to offer agricultural credits, Winzenz said.

Winzenz envisions an agricultural and auto museum in the oldest portion of the manufacturing plant, which originally built Samson tractors.

“From several meetings with General Motors, I believe they want to have a legacy in the community,” Winzenz said.

Mark Freitag started as city manager Dec. 2. He declined to comment on the GM fairgrounds proposal.

The city has a long-term goal of buying riverfront property and opening access to the public. That follows the 1920s direction of famed city planner John Nolan.

Winzenz's proposal would mean buying 44 properties, including residences and businesses with an assessed value of about $2.8 million. Francois Oil accounts for more than $300,000 of that.

Forty-one of the properties are in the 100-year or 500-year floodplain, Winzenz said.

Winzenz said he could only guess at the expense of the plan. A 2004 study estimated a cost of $20 million just to move the fairgrounds.

The proposal includes a convention/exposition center, outdoor horse and rodeo show arena, a midway, amphitheater/grandstand and tractor museum with auto and agricultural exhibits. A parking lot already exists, but more parking could be needed.

The current fairgrounds host gatherings almost every weekend. A management company could book the new facility for equestrian events, concerts, tractor pulls or gun shows, Winzenz said.

 “Anything would be possible, even a hotel, convention center or ice arena,” Winzenz said.

 “There are a lot of people that are going to have to come to the table for this to happen,” he said.

City council members generally were receptive to Winzenz's suggestions, Councilman Sam Liebert said. Behind closed doors, the council gave the administration the OK to continue exploring the possibilities.

“I think it would do a lot to help Janesville and the south side,” Liebert said.

He noted the UAW contract isn't up until 2015, and the council has to be sensitive to that. Winzenz's proposal is only one idea, he said.

“While nothing is cast in stone, it is better to be proactive instead of sitting on your hands and doing nothing,” Liebert said.

 “It's probably the most—next to SHINE (a new medical isotope company)—probably one of the most exciting things I've ever been presented with,” Liebert said.

“It would be something awesome.”

“It's better to have a vision than no vision at all,” he said.

Winzenz said he is “planting seeds” with his proposal.

GM officials “very early on … told us they wanted the community to be involved in the plans for redevelopment,” Winzenz said.

“They wanted to be sensitive to that, and they didn't want to do something that wasn't OK with the community.

 “I'd like to be able to roll this concept out to the General Motors folks and say, 'This is what we want,'” Winzenz said.

“There are a lot of opportunities here.”

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