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Tour shows downtown Janesville still alive and well

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JAMES P. LEUTE
September 24, 2009
— Downtown Janesville is alive, well and most definitely open for business.

That was the message Wednesday to about 40 real estate developers and brokers who toured the downtown on foot.


The brainchild of the Downtown Development Alliance, Downtown Janesville Development Day targeted developers and brokers in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.


"It exceeded my expectations," said Deb Dongarra Adams, chair of the alliance's development team and manager of Land Title & Closing Services. "I went around to the tables at lunch and heard a lot of comments about how awesome the event was.


"I think we opened some eyes about the opportunities in downtown Janesville."


Tour groups started at Prospect 101, the former Helgesen Building that Sara Investment Real Estate has renovated at the corner of Main and Milwaukee streets. After stops at the One Seventeen East condominium project and Carriage Works Building, the groups moved through the Olde Towne Mall to the downtown's west side.


From there, the route included the old Social Security building, Jackson Square and the historical gas station near City Hall. The Bennison & Lane Building, old YMCA and Monterey Hotel were precursors to lunch and a panel discussion at The Armory.


"Janesville is a much different community than what you see when you drive by on I-90," said Brad Cantrell, the city's community development director.


Despite the closing of the General Motors plant in Janesville, the city has retained a favorable bond rating, Cantrell said. That couples with the city's quality of life, solid workforce, education and commitment to infrastructure to make the city appealing, he said.


Cantrell said a recent downtown study suggested that the city embrace its 18 miles of Rock River-front property, enhance the downtown living environment, expand on its entertainment opportunities and connect the district to nearby health care campuses.


Gale Price, the city's manager of building and development services, said that city staff will bend over backwards to help developers and brokers bring new businesses to town.


That's a mantra that's different from years ago, when some felt the city was an obstruction to development projects, he said.


"If something doesn't work, it will be because of a very specific zoning issue or some other rule, not because of our staff," Price said.


Eric Schwartz, president of Sara Investment Real Estate, said the city staff works as a partner with developers. Schwartz said his company does business around the state, and the welcome it has received in Janesville is one reason he's invested nearly $30 million in local projects.


"They don't give us everything we want, but that's OK," Schwartz said. "They will, however, collaborate with us."


Forward Janesville President John Beckord said the downtown area is a subset of a community that's taken its economic shots but is prime for a rebound.


The community, he said, has more than 3 million square feet of industrial space available, and that doesn't include the GM campus.


Thousands of people are unemployed but ready and willing to return to work, he said, noting that it's common for 300 applicants to apply for one open position.


"That's a very attractive position for an employer to be in," he said.


Beckord said Janesville is one of just three cities in the state that can offer tax credits for capital investment, an incentive tool that goes beyond the typical tax credits tied to job creation.


Other federal grants are funding projects that complement a variety of recently announced private sector expansion projects, he said.


"And I'd like someone to show me another community this size that has completely rebuilt its education infrastructure from kindergarten through college," Beckord said in reference recent projects in the Janesville School District and at UW-Rock County and Blackhawk Technical College.


"There's a lot happening in Janesville, and there is reason to be highly optimistic that when this economy turns around, we've set the table to grow very rapidly."



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