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Janesville city manager makes redevelopment a top priority

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JAMES P. LEUTE
January 17, 2008
— Revitalization plans for downtown Janesville have come and gone, and progress has been made, albeit slowly.

But the time is right to make significant progress, said City Manager Steve Sheiffer, who has pushed downtown development to the top of his priority list for 2008.


“We’re at a critical jumping-off point,” said Sheiffer, who’s read his share of downtown plans in his 20 years in Janesville.


Downtown proponents and opponents have heard that many times before, but Sheiffer said that anything less than his administration’s full attention would be selling the community short.


The landscape of downtown Janesville is different these days, and Sheiffer said several factors should lead to significant progress in downtown Janesville.


“The downtown today is much different than it was 10 years ago,” he said. “If you take a good look at the downtown today, you’ll see that there has been huge progress.”


Ten years ago, the downtown didn’t have a new library, a renovated YMCA or a new Boys and Girls Club. The Janesville Performing Arts Center was a community dream, and The Armory was a far cry from the theater and restaurant venue that it is today.


Sheiffer said several new restaurants have opened and found success.


“Because of all those things, what has occurred in the last 10 years has clearly defined downtown Janesville as a cultural/entertainment district,” Sheiffer said.


Factoring in the downtown’s government and business sector helps define the downtown even further, he said.


The most recent downtown plan identified several properties that are ripe for redevelopment. Sheiffer said he’ll ask the city council to acquire as many of those properties as possible, and the city will help market those parcels to private developers.


“It will take a major investment, but you can’t market what you don’t own,” he said.


Sheiffer said a solid public-private partnership is essential for the successful downtown redevelopment.


That mantra, too, has been chanted for years, but Sheiffer believes a recently created partnership with Forward Janesville will work for downtown Janesville.


The Renaissance Partnership, a nine-member board, will evaluate a long list of development opportunities and make recommendations to the city council, said John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, the city’s private economic development organization.


The group includes Sheiffer, city council President George Brunner and Paul Williams, chairman of the plan commission.


Their involvement is a strong indication of the city’s commitment to the downtown, Beckord said.


“The timing for this is right because of the projects that have been completed in the past and the fact that there are now opportunities that have presented themselves in the form of investors, developers and sites,” he said.


“The city manager sees an opportunity to use the momentum already generated by so many people and accelerate it.”


In addition to property acquisition and marketing, Sheiffer said he’ll propose a downtown parking project this year.


“If the downtown is going to be a cultural/entertainment district, then we certainly need to look at parking,” he said, adding that he expects a new structure for 100 to 200 vehicles this year and perhaps a second in 2009.


Sheiffer also said a small hotel with adequate meeting space makes sense for downtown Janesville.


“I’m not talking about a convention center, but something that would support the visitors that Mercy (Health System), The Armory and others bring to the downtown,” he said.


If the city is successful in acquiring key properties, it will work with Forward Janesville to guide prospective developers with projects that fit the definition the downtown has created for itself, Sheiffer said.


“Ultimately, you’ve got to recognize that the market and economics control what happens with a project, not the wishes of government,” Sheiffer said.


Markets and economics also will guide the city in how much it can spend to acquire key properties.


“Anytime you try to make a major investment in anything, there’s going to be disagreement,” Sheiffer said. “There will be supporters and there will be detractors, and if there’s one thing that’s certain in government, it’s that when you want to spend money, you’ll take some flak, generate some opposition.


“But you can’t build a great city by saying no; you can’t build a vibrant downtown by saying no.”


New downtown businesses outnumber closures

The big projects have been well documented and heralded, but it’s the smaller ones that play an important role in the sustenance of a community’s downtown.


Last year, 28 new businesses opened in downtown Janesville, while 26 closed their doors or moved, according to the Janesville Design & Development Center.


“We’re moving forward,” said Christine Moore, the center’s managing director.


“Not by leaps and bounds, but slowly.”


Moore and others affiliated with downtown redevelopment efforts must walk a fine line when it comes to business recruitment and retention downtown. They want businesses to open in the area, but in a perfect world they’d be businesses that support the overall theme of the downtown as a cultural/entertainment/social district.


“We’re always asking whether these new businesses complement the direction we want to go with our downtown,” she said. “The bars and restaurants that have opened certainly are in line with the goals.


“But I would never tell a business not to come downtown because it’s not the right type of business.”


Armed with a new downtown redevelopment plan, Moore and others try to steer new businesses to the most suitable downtown location.


“We’d like offices in office spaces and retail in retail spaces,” she said. “We’d rather not have offices in what are clearly (retail) storefronts.”


Moore said some communities have ordinances that restrict storefronts to retail and service businesses.


“We’re not to that point, but we are trying to do is develop a niche market,” she said. “That’s not going to be all things to all people.”



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