Whether behind the scenes or out front, group puts business first

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October 31, 2008
— As the leader of Forward Janesville, John Beckord sometimes gets his knuckles rapped for not taking more credit for the successes of the private economic development organization.

That’s by design, Beckord said. The organization prefers to work with others on the sidelines to get things done.

Since it was born in 1991 in a merger of the Janesville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Janesville Economic Development Corp., Forward Janesville has evolved from an in-your-face style of economic development in the 1990s to subtler strategies in the 2000s.

But Forward Janesville’s goal is as clear as ever.

“We advocate for the interests of the business community first and foremost,” Beckord said during a recent interview.

The business community is squarely in the spotlight as the Janesville area tries to emerge from a spate of horrible economic news and plant closings.

Forward Janesville has long championed the importance of diversifying the local economy, a strategy that has softened the recent blows. The group will continue to do so in the future, Beckord said.

The end of this decade, however, will present drastically different challenges than those Forward Janesville tackled 10 or 15 years ago.

The group plans to continue its leadership role, but just who is Forward Janesville and what exactly does it do?

The basics

Forward Janesville has 575 members, down 22 percent from a high of 740 in 2001, the year Beckord replaced Andy Hayes as president.

Beckord attributes the decline to the growing number of local operations led by distant decision-makers as well as the group’s occasional political advocacy.

“We are active in the political world, and the old saying is if you’re doing something in that area, you’re likely to aggravate a certain segment of your membership,” he said. “But doing something is still viewed by the majority of my board as preferable to playing it safe and not being engaged.”

Forward Janesville operates on an annual budget of about $500,000, nearly two-thirds of which comes from membership dues and contributions ranging from $285 to $15,000. The rest of the budget comes from program services and special events.

A 16-member board governs the organization.

About 75 percent of spending goes to pay for seven employees.

While the staff works together, Beckord generally is responsible for economic development issues. Others handle government relations, education, small businesses, membership development and downtown redevelopment.

The mission

Make no mistake, Forward Janesville’s overriding goal is to advance the interests of its members.

But it routinely goes further, Beckord said.

“Where (business) interests interconnect with the other interests, we’re right there with other groups in the community,” he said.

The business group often works closely with the local United Auto Workers leadership, he said.

“Business and organized labor often have very similar interests, and the goal is to identify where those alignments are—whether it’s retaining the city manager form of government, the high school bond referendum, the road project down by the (General Motors) plant.

“… There are a lot of reasons and a lot of times when it makes sense to work together.”

The members

About 85 percent of Forward Janesville members have fewer than 20 employees. That seems to contradict the notion that the group is a miniature version of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest and sometimes-controversial business interest group.

“A lot of what we do really applies to businesses of any size,” Beckord said. “There is special programming we do for small businesses, and, similarly, there might be some things that you could argue are more geared to our larger employers.

“But there’s a real interconnectedness between various size members. I don’t know that it’s useful to build walls between our membership.”

Forward Janesville soon will launch a new health insurance product that targets small businesses.

“Let’s face it, larger employers have options that smaller businesses don’t have,” he said.

Programming and products aside, Forward Janesville sometimes takes political positions on the city, county or state level.

Generally, such advocacy must be of widespread importance to the business community.

“Unlike some other types of organizations where there might be more uniformity of point of view, there’s no question that our membership has a very diverse political orientation,” he said.

Beckord’s aware that his group’s positions are scrutinized.

For example, Forward Janesville has lobbied legislators to not raid the state’s transportation fund and instead spend revenues on the infrastructure improvements they were intended for.

“Then we take the next step and try to make the case that Interstate 90 expansion, Highway 26 improvements, (widening) Highway 14 over to Interstate 43 are priority issues that should be closer to the top of the list of things to get done,” Beckord said.

The purpose, he said, is not to secure more work for Janesville road builder Rock Road Cos. or other suppliers that happen to be Forward Janesville members.

“We’re doing that because transportation infrastructure is viewed by our board and many of our members as a real important element in the bigger picture of economic development,” he said. “(Infrastructure) has revealed itself to be inordinately important in attracting new employers that hire people and pay taxes and on and on and on.”

The successes

It took four years of work and the efforts of many, but the addition of the engineering program at UW-Rock County is a huge achievement, Beckord said.

So, too, is the renovated facility that Forward Janesville now calls home.

Earlier this year, Forward Janesville moved into 14 S. Jackson St., which coupled with a new building is one of the most significant downtown redevelopment projects in years.

“It was a risky decision by my board,” Beckord said, adding that the project wouldn’t have been possible without risk-taking partners.

“Most often times, nonprofit, volunteer boards are risk averse. They take their business hat off when they enter the door to the board meeting, and they just don’t want to make waves or take risks.”

But the board weighed all the options and decided the project represented a creative reuse of historic buildings that could prompt other downtown investors to do the same thing.

In addition, Beckord said the formation of the Rock County Development Alliance—a coalition of area economic development agencies—sets the table for future economic development initiatives.

The group recently received a $450,000 federal grant that will help market Rock County.

“It has definitely pulled Rock County into the equation as a full-blown partner,” Beckord said. “I think we have set the table in a way that we re going to have a very high-performance development program that I’ll put up against any in the state.

“We have the experience, we have the talent and now we have some resources.”

And the silver lining in recent economic problems is that the area has a lot to offer investors, namely the availability of good workers and sites for new businesses.

“I don’t want to suggest that this is going to be an overnight sensation, but I really think we have our act together and are ready over the next five years to have a regular, steady stream of prospects evaluating our community,” he said.

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