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Locals spread Christmas joy with unusual light displays

ELKHORN

In just two years, the Christmas light show at an Elkhorn home has become one of the biggest in the area, and the man behind it sees an even brighter future.

Motorists who stop by N6916 Northwood Drive evenings through New Year’s Day are treated to a colorful display of nearly 50,000 lights synced to 11 songs transmitted to 87.9 FM. Snowflakes, trees, rails, arches and a mesh screen flash and glow to the rhythm. One song even displays lip-syncing characters who sing along.

It’s quite an improvement from the 17,000 lights JT Worley displayed on his house last year.

Worley started work on the show in March. He built the display himself and hired someone from Pennsylvania to program the lights and sync them to songs he selected.

Worley has sunk $22,000 into the project, but the cost doesn’t bother him. He remembers seeing Christmas lights with his family as a child, and he wants to pass that joy to others.

“I grew up poor, and one of the things that we did during Christmas is my parents would load us up in the car and take us out to see Christmas lights…” Worley said. “Those are probably some of the fonder memories I have as a child.”

On a typical night, 50 to 70 vehicles stop by Worley’s house to watch the show. On weekends, it can be 120 to 150 vehicles, he said.

Worley likes to sit at the end of his driveway and hear kids yell with excitement.

“That’s what it’s all about: It’s getting people to smile,” he said. “Not everybody’s going to have a great Christmas, and it helps. I really believe it. I mean, it helped me as a kid.”

Next year, Worley wants to build a 40-foot-tall Christmas tree light display. The current one is only 24 feet.

A mesh screen of lights covers one front-facing window, and Worley wants to expand that, too.

“I want to do that to the entire front of the house, so the whole house just looks like a giant TV screen. That’s next year’s goal,” he said.

Worley’s show might be the most impressive, but it’s far from the only Christmas light display in the area. Here are four more:

Anthony Wahl 

John Striegel has offered a Christmas light show synced to music at 3767 Stone Ridge Drive, Janesville, for 11 years.

3767 Stone Ridge Drive, Janesville

Now in its 11th year, the light show at 3767 Stone Ridge Drive, Janesville, continues to draw visitors.

The show is similar to Worley’s. About 20,000 lights are synced to music that viewers can listen to on 90.9 FM.

John Striegel started the show at his house when he was a teenager. Every year, he invests about $500 to $1,000 in new technology to make it that much better, he said.

This year, he included a song dedicated to the military. One veteran came out to film it and was brought to tears, Striegel said.

“It’s really (about) the Christmas spirit and people being happy,” he said. “I think it brings great cheer to everyone.”

The show runs from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 4:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Jan. 2. It’s free to see, and donations go to the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin.

Anthony Wahl 

The house at 5024 S. Driftwood Drive, Janesville, includes 16,000 lights and a mini Ferris wheel and mini carousel.

5024 S. Driftwood Drive, Janesville

This display near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport is more than just lights.

Mike and Kathy Blaser’s yard is decorated with several wooden Christmas characters they crafted and painted themselves. There’s even a functioning miniature Ferris wheel and miniature carousel, all set to music.

“We have a winter wonderland,” Kathy Blaser said.

The couple have decorated for Christmas for 20 years. They create new cutouts to add to the display each year, Kathy said.

“It just keeps growing,” she said.

The Blasers love Christmas, and they love seeing residents stop by the house to look at the display. They invite visitors to step into the yard and take a closer look.

“It really puts you in the Christmas spirit when you can make other people smile,” Kathy said.

Anthony Wahl 

Wayne Cauley at 1636 W. Inverness Drive, Janesville, has filled his lawn with more than 30 inflatable holiday decorations.

1636 W. Inverness Drive, Janesville

Wayne Cauley specializes in inflatables.

The yard of Cauley’s home between Janesville and Edgerton is adorned with more than 30 Christmas-related inflatables, from snowmen and nutcrackers to sleighs and Santa in a helicopter.

Cauley’s wife, Faye, decorates the inside of the house just as intricately as he decorates the outside. They’ve been going all out on Christmas decorations for about 20 years, Cauley said.

People regularly stop by to admire the displays and thank Cauley for taking the time to set them up. Cauley would love to see more residents get involved in decorating because “it changes the flavor of life a little,” he said.

“We like to see the smiles on people’s faces when they drive by and see all the things out there,” he said. “It’s just a happy time of year for us.”

Anthony Wahl 

Doug and Denise Caldwell’s house features an inflatable decoration of Santa in a hot air balloon. It's suspended on stilts to make it look like it’s floating.

1205 Hoover St., Janesville

Before you even turn onto Hoover Street from Hawthorne Avenue, you can see a floating inflatable decoration glowing like a light bulb above the Caldwells’ lawn.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll see it’s a nearly full-sized Santa in a hot air balloon. Doug Caldwell put it on 12-foot stilts to make it look like it was floating.

A couple of years ago, Doug and his wife, Denise, strung a rope from a front-yard tree to one in the backyard and suspended the decoration above their house.

“When the wind would blow, Santa would just start swinging back and forth,” Doug said.

They had to take the decoration down whenever the wind got too strong. The front-yard tree was removed this year, forcing the couple to improvise and suspend the decoration on stilts, they said.

Still, residents regularly stop by to take photos and admire Santa in his balloon. Cars often slow down as they pass the house, the couple said.

“It’s better than a speed bump, I’ll tell you that,” Doug said.

Denise is happy a relatively simple decoration can bring so much joy.

“You can still got a lot of smiles from something cheaper,” she said.


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New owner of Janesville's former GM site 'likely' to demolish plant

JANESVILLE

Commercial Development Company CEO Randall Jostes made an outsize entrance Thursday as the brand-new owner of the former General Motors plant in Janesville.

The 6-foot-5-inch CEO picked up the wooden podium in the city council chambers at City Hall, jokingly hoisting it from the floor to move the microphone closer to his face during a press conference the company had called.

“You’re just meeting us. We’ve been watching and looking at you for quite some time. We’re excited to be here,” Jostes said in his address to city officials and a peppering of local residents and media.

The crowd laughed at the ice breaker and listened intently as he explained what’s in store for the defunct assembly plant that Commercial Development officially acquired this week.

Jostes said his St. Louis redevelopment firm most likely will tear down most or all of the 4.8-million-square-foot GM complex starting in March or April 2018. The company then likely will regrade the site and ready it for potential new industrial developments, likely by late 2018 or early 2019.

“We should have it ready to induce vertical development in about a year’s time,” he said. “Maybe give us an extra six months. We might run into a snag; we might have more of this or more of that than we anticipated. Certainly by spring of 2019, we should be coming out of the ground with new (industrial) uses.

“What we envision is kind of a multiple hundred-thousand-square-foot industrial facility, everything from logistic centers to heavy industry and light industrial uses. That’s our concept,” Jostes said.

Some of the redevelopment, he said, might come via other developers working with Commercial Development. He said the company’s first goal is to get the property readied for redevelopment.

When Commercial Development’s work starts, it will conclude the GM plant’s historic run in Janesville.

From the 1930s and 1990s, the plant reigned as the city’s biggest and most powerful industry. It has languished since 2009 after GM placed it on standby status.

In 2015, after a wave of contract negotiations between the UAW and GM, the plant was taken off standby status, decommissioned and put up for sale.

Commercial Development announced in September that it was trying to close on the property, and on Wednesday, the St. Louis-based company and GM both announced the sale was final. Both companies declined to give details of the sale or a sale price during Thursday’s press conference.

GM officials yielded the floor mostly to Commercial Development as the site’s new owner, and Jostes devoted about a half-hour of the press conference to answering questions from the media, officials and residents.

Jostes said Commercial Development has been working on plans for redeveloping the 300-acre site for about a year.

He said his company plans to spend “tens of millions of dollars” on environmental remediation, demolition and readying the site for redevelopment.

It’s almost certain that all or most of the former auto plant structures on the property will be demolished.

“We believe we’ve looked at every possibility of preserving some of the structure, but it doesn’t look like that’s possible. We haven’t ruled it out completely. So it looks like we’re going to have to demolish the 4-million-square-foot facility,” Jostes said.

Commercial Development plans to preserve industrial electrical infrastructure at the plant because it’s a major draw for reuse, Jostes said. He also called the site’s set of two rail spurs an asset that’s “hard to come by.”

He called the plant site “spectacular” and its infrastructure “incredible.”

Jostes said there’s a chance that Commercial Development could leave 100,000 square feet or so of the plant in place for a potential project that could bring a “truck manufacturer” to Janesville.

Jostes told The Gazette the interest in a section of the plant was a “nibble” by a company that came in the last two months.

“It’s a truck manufacturing firm. They have an interest in being situated in the part of the facility that’s closest to the rail spurs on site,” Jostes said. “We’ll do whatever we can to position the facility” for that option.

For some users, leaving at least part of the former GM facility standing might make sense, Jostes said.

Commercial Development has imploded buildings before, including a power plant on the Michigan-Canada border. But Janesville’s empty plant would be deconstructed in stages, Jostes said, with the first step being asbestos removal in the buildings, starting in the coming weeks.

That would be followed by removal and crushing of foundations and other concrete, along with a systematic demolition of the plant that would recycle as much material as possible. Some of the demolition might be done by local contractors, Jostes hinted.

Jostes and City Manager Mark Freitag said the city will work with Commercial Development to determine where nonrecycled material is taken. It’s not clear if some rubble and debris from the plant could end up in the city’s landfill, although Freitag indicated the landfill might take some of the material.

Commercial Development said it has agreed to take on environmental liabilities of the property. Jostes said in the past the company has completed necessary environmental cleanup of its properties, even if the cost has been greater than initial estimates.

The sale means that GM is freed from ownership of a facility it has operated since 1919. At one time in the late 1970s, GM has estimated that more than 7,000 people worked at the Janesville plant. Its history includes manufacturing of vehicles that ranged from tractors to early cars, pickup trucks and, in later years, fully-loaded SUVs.

The city in 2016 asked GM to consider setting up a $25 million “legacy fund” that would “enhance economic and workforce development and sustain community development”—sort of a parting gesture from a company that had been the core of the city’s economy.

John Blanchard, who heads GM’s government relations division, said Thursday that GM has no intention of setting up such a fund. Blanchard said GM’s negotiations with Commercial Development to buy and redevelop the former plant constitutes a legacy in itself.

Freitag said the sale of the plant and its likely demolition comes with more than a note of sadness because it closes a chapter of Janesville’s history.

But he said the sale also represents an “entirely new chapter” in Janesville, one he believes residents should be excited about.

Freitag gave Commercial Development and GM officials tokens of the city’s gratitude during the press conference, including military-style “coins of excellence” that he handed to them in a ceremonial handshake.

One resident brought a double-tiered plate of brownies to share, and the city decorated the council dais with several potted poinsettias.

Commercial Development plans to work with local historians to try to preserve some elements of the plant. For instance, Jostes said his company found one clay tile stamped with an original date from the plant’s earliest years.

He acknowledged the difficulty some residents will have when the walls of the former auto plant start to fall.

“As you see the old structure go down, you might have a tear in your eye. You’re going to think of the memories. You’re going to think of the great jobs. You’re going to think, ‘I had an uncle, a grandma, a grandpa work there,” Jostes said.

“But once it’s down, you’re really going to get a sense of what the future could be. And the future will be very bright. And we’re going to be committed to it.”


171222_GLANCE

Local • 3A, 5A

Teachers get education grants

Every year, the Janesville Education Foundation distributes grants to Janesville School District teachers. Teachers must apply for the grants. The foundation gave out an estimated $9,000 in grants, ranging in size from $250 to about $1,000.

Payday lender robbed Thursday

Janesville police are investigating an armed robbery of a payday lender on the northeast side Thursday evening. Police said a man walked into the Check ‘n Go at 2521 Milton Ave., and demanded money. He then pulled up his sweatshirt and showed a black handgun.

Nation/World • 7B-8B

Temporary federal spending OK’d

The Republican-led Congress narrowly passed a temporary spending bill Thursday to avert a government shutdown, doing the bare minimum in a sprint toward the holidays and punting disputes on immigration, health care and the budget to next year.

UN condemns US on Jerusalem move

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to denounce President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, largely ignoring Trump’s threats to cut off aid to any country that went against him.

Sports • 1B-3B

Bluebirds record first win of season

Janesville’s high school boys co-op hockey team was 0-8 coming into Thursday’s Big Eight Conference game with Beloit Memorial but played nothing like a team without a win. Ben Coulter scored twice and Owen Aldrich stopped all 21 shots he faced in the Bluebirds’ 3-0 victory at the Janesville Ice Arena.