Officials consider best way to revitalize downtown
Kyle Geissler talks with Janesville Gazette business editor Jim Leute about how supporters and opponents of a "Business Improvement District" (BID) in downtown Janesville are proceeding after the proposal's defeat.
JANESVILLE It’s mighty difficult to find anyone not interested in a thriving downtown Janesville.
But thriving means different things to different people, and if a common definition ever is found, the path to prosperity could take one of two paths: a structured approach or one where nature takes its course.
A recently defeated Business Improvement District for downtown Janesville was a formal proposal that involved assessments to property owners, a board of directors and a staff person that proponents believed was the best course to downtown revitalization.
Opponents, on the other hand, have said that the city’s downtown has done well and will continue to do well without any bureaucratic help.
Larry Squire, a member of the Downtown Development Alliance that backed the recent BID proposal, said he will continue to support a coordinated effort to revitalize the downtown.
“When we said, ‘This is a Downtown Improvement District,’ that implies that businesses will improve,” Squire said. “But there are different definitions of success. For some, it’s more customers, more sales, increasing property value, increased tenant retention or something else.
“We said things would be different, but no one could guarantee what different would look like.”
Squire believes a coordinated private sector effort is best, particularly because the city has stepped forward with significant infrastructure commitments to the downtown.
Still, he said it will be difficult given the many definitions and components in play among downtown business and property owners.
He likens a BID to a condominium owners’ association, where assessments are made for the mutual benefit of the whole. While not all members see the same results, everyone sees value in the long run by being a part of the association.
“With the downtown, however, there are varying degrees of interest, varying degrees of involvement and varying degrees of what success is,” said Squire, president of Johnson Bank in Janesville.
Last month, a petition against creating the BID was signed by owners of property assessed at about 45 percent of the BID’s assessed value. That was above the 40 percent threshold needed under state law to defeat the BID.
Overall, more than two-thirds of the district’s 182 property owners signed the petition, said Janesville attorney Pat McDonald, one of the organizers of the petition drive.
McDonald and others said Janesville’s downtown is improving, and it’s doing so without a BID’s “regressive” tax structure and without a bureaucracy.
“I don’t see the need for any additional structure, but I would support a voluntary organization as long as we can see some benefit,” McDonald said. “The property and business owners downtown just don’t want anything imposed on them, and that was the biggest failure of the BID.”
McDonald said many property owners would prefer the status quo, where existing city program such as Tax Increment Finance districts have been successful.
“Most people downtown are satisfied with what’s happened in the last 25 years and what’s happening today,” he said. “It’s not like nothing’s happening.”
McDonald said he’d support a downtown business association, where membership and dues are voluntary.
“With a voluntary organization, I think people would be able to judge for themselves whether it’s a benefit and join if they want to,” he said.
With a defeated BID in its wake, where does the downtown community go from here?
McDonald said he met with BID supporters this week to discuss that very question.
“I told them that everyone downtown is willing to work for continued improvement,” he said. “The question is what form it takes.”
Squire believes there will be—at some point—an organized effort to benefit the downtown. It won’t necessarily be another BID proposal, he predicted.
“I don’t think there was anyone who was saying they don’t want good things for downtown,” Squire said. “I do think that we’ll come back around and discuss the issues that people want addressed.
“There are certainly opinions and attitudes out there that everyone needs to be aware of. It’s just finding that soft spot that everyone can agree upon.”