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Impact on bus tours coming to Janesville uncertain since GM closed

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
March 6, 2009
— Effects from the closing of the General Motors plant might ripple beyond parts suppliers and retailers.

It could hurt tourism.


Many bus tours came to Janesville to tour the General Motors plant but then took in other sights around town.


Local officials worry the closing of the plant will cut bus tours to other attractions in the city.


"It's hard to predict and until we get this year under out belt, I won't know if we lost many," said Christine Rebout, executive director of the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which organizes about three-quarters of the bus tours that come here.


Rock County Historical Society Executive Director Madge Murphy, agreed.


"I don't know for sure how it's going to affect us. I don't think we'll know until spring hits," Murphy said.


Rotary Gardens might be one of the local attractions most affected.


"We've been concerned about this for some time now," said Gary Smith, interim executive director of Rotary Gardens.


Rotary Gardens hosted 48 bus tours in 2008. Of those, at least 35 also stopped to tour GM. So far this year, only 28 bus tours are scheduled to visit the botanical gardens, said Polly Punzel, facility rental and events manager.


General Motors announced in June that the Janesville plant would close by the end of 2010 at the latest. In October, the announcement came that SUV production would end in December. Plant tours ended in early November.


Both the convention and visitors bureau and historical society had bus tours cancel in 2008.


Nineteen of the 130 bus tour itineraries prepared by convention and visitors bureau staff canceled in 2008, a 4 percent increase over 2007, according to annual reports.


A half dozen tours also canceled trips to the Lincoln-Tallman House and Helen Jeffris Wood Museum Center last year, Murphy said.


Cancellations, Rebout and Murphy agreed, were because of the economy, fuel costs, floods and the ups and downs at GM.


"If buses were not full and motor coaches couldn't pay for that increase in fuel, they were canceling," Rebout said.


The loss of bus tours also means less money pumped into the local economy.


For example, the 5,500 tourists who came to Janesville on convention and visitors bureau bus tours in 2007 spent $714,480. In 2008, the number of tourists arriving by bus declined to 4,031 and their spending dropped to $516,000, Rebout said.


"The monetary loss is more far-reaching than a guided tour," Punzel said.


It's the loss of income in gifts shops, restaurants, retail outlets and motels, she said.


"Tourism is a huge industry in this community," Smith said.


To make sure bus tours keep coming, community leaders are working together to promote Janesville.


"We've hired and created a cooperative marketing director and discovered opportunities to partner more," Rebout said.


"Doing it cooperatively saves everybody money and sends a consistent message of so much to do in Janesville," she said.


They're selling local attractions such as the Lincoln-Tallman House, Rotary Gardens, MacFarlane Pheasant Farm, Wisconsin Wagon Co., Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, Gray's Brewing, historic house districts, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, the Armory, K&W Greenery, Rock Aqua Jays water ski shows and the birthplace of Miracle the white buffalo.


Added to year's bus tour options is the Janesville Gazette Printing & Distribution plant.


"It's a great addition and makes up for the loss of GM," Rebout said.


They also are targeting customer service by giving welcoming gifts and having a local representative step onto each bus and greet tourists "to make it an easy decision to come to Janesville," Rebout said.


"For anybody who calls and still wants to go to GM, we'll tell them here's another dozen things you can do," Rebout said. "We do have a lot of other good offerings."



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