Downtown Janesville plan appears to be victim of Great Recession

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Friday, September 9, 2011
— Nearly four years old, Janesville’s most recent downtown revitalization plan appears destined for a graveyard of plans long past, a victim of poor timing and the Great Recession of the late-2000s.

The 133-page study—the “City of Janesville Downtown Vision and Strategy”—was unveiled in late 2007 with much fanfare.

It carried four tenets:

-- Develop a cohesive vision for the downtown.

-- Identify key gaps, opportunities, and catalytic projects for the downtown.

-- Develop a clear and achievable implementation strategy.

-- Create a clear structure and public-private partnerships to implement the recommendations.

But within a little more than a year of the plan’s unveiling, the economy tanked.

Four years hence, and very little of the plan has been implemented.

Those involved in downtown development say progress is slow, but, they say, the operative word there is “progress.”

“I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that progress has been made,” said John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, the city’s private economic development organization.

“It’s not too long ago that we addressed one issue and dedicated a brand new parking ramp. There are ideas out there … the enthusiasm for the vision hasn’t dwindled.”

The plan

A key component of the plan was the creation of two different public-private partnerships to guide downtown revitalization.

One would have been the Downtown Renaissance Partnership, a small group of members appointed by the city and Forward Janesville to spearhead major redevelopment projects with funding provided primarily by city.

The other partnership would have involved a restructuring of the Downtown Development Alliance and the Janesville Design and Development Center into a new Downtown Action Alliance responsible for operations, beautification, business recruitment and marketing. It’s funding was suggested to come from a proposed Business Improvement District supported by assessments on its property owners.

None of that has happened.

The city and Forward Janesville are struggling with funding issues of their own. In fact, Forward Janesville dissolved the JDDC at the end of 2010 for that very reason.

The Downtown Development Alliance is still very much alive, but it’s trying to chart its course as an unfunded organization.

“Right now, we’re putting donation boxes in downtown businesses so we can put up holiday lights,” said Jeni Sauser, the DDA’s president. She said the group has discussed voluntary membership as a way to raise money, but that would put the group in competition with Forward Janesville and probably not raise all that much money anyway.

Another BID proposal is likely out of the question.

A previous attempt failed in 2003 when property owners representing 40 percent or more of the district’s assessed value—the benchmark defined in state law—signed a petition in opposition to a BID.

The same thing happened in 2008, when owners of about 45 percent of the district’s value opposed the study-supported BID proposal.

Sauser said a third run at a BID is not on the DDA’s radar, particularly given the difficult economy and a citywide property reassessment that boosted commercial assessments by an average of 27 percent.

“Times are tough,” she said. “We don’t even talk about a BID.”

It’s the economy

Sauser said the latest downtown plan is more a victim of poor timing than anything else.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” she said. “There are just a lot of things that happened.”

Beckord agrees.

“It’s no secret that resources are scarce, that belt-tightening is the order of the day,” he said. “Right now, it’s awfully hard to put the pencil to paper on a private sector project that works.

“Everyone’s strapped, and it’s just very difficult to raise money. But I’m still a firm believer that money follows good ideas.”

It’s not impossible, both said, that a private investor could emerge with an idea and the funding for a significant downtown project. It’s happened before, they said, noting redevelopment projects such as the Armory, Riverfront Athletic Centre and The Speakeasy.

But the current economic climate makes the prospects for such a scenario uncertain.

What’s ahead?

Beckord said the city has a number of infrastructure ideas that will help downtown revitalization.

Sometime in the next couple of years, the city is expected to change a portion of East Milwaukee Street from one-way traffic to two-way, a move supported by the DDA to make downtown a more conducive market for buyers and sellers.

Sauser said the recent “Rock Around the Block” was an overwhelming success, an example of an event that gets people excited about downtown Janesville.

“I think that’s one thing the DDA can do, concentrate on more events,” she said. “If we can just get a few things like that that have some teeth and staying power …”

With a budget based on volunteer efforts and free-will donations, Sauser said the DDA needs to better communicate with other groups to coordinate efforts and events.

“We all need to get together as one group and work together to promote things all around the community,” she said.

Another challenge, she said, is infusing the DDA with new blood. Many of the group’s volunteers have been carrying the water for years, and burnout will become a factor, she said.

The group is looking at social media as a way to recruit new volunteers and promote downtown Janesville.

“We need some new ideas, some new blood,” she said.

Beckord said a major downtown issue will be the parking plaza over the Rock River.

“It’s a difficult issue, one that’s been tossed around since well before I got here,” he said. “It certainly engenders a lot of passion on both sides.

“The real question, I think, is that if the plaza is removed, how will the city creatively replace that parking?”

Forward Janesville, Beckord, said, finds itself in a support role for downtown Janesville. It doesn’t have the resources to invest in projects, and it’s own staff is about half the size of previous staffs that worked on previous downtown plans.

“Our priorities are certainly different,” he said. “But we are certainly here to support downtown development.”

He applauds the DDA, which he said soldiers on without dedicated funding.

He also believes the commitment from City Hall is at an all-time high, even with its own budget challenges.

And finally, Beckord said there are several individuals working behind the scenes who have a strong vision for downtown Janesville.

“It’s been slow, but we’re making progress in some troubled times,” he said. “There are several things to be encouraged about.”


Janesville has bookshelves lined with downtown studies, reports and plans. Here are those filed in the last 24 years:

-- 2007, City of Janesville Downtown Vision and Strategy.

This study was designed to develop a cohesive vision for the downtown, identify key opportunities and develop an implementation plan with public-private partnerships.

-- 2006, City of Janesville Downtown Parking Study.

This study consisted of an inventory of available parking spaces and an occupancy survey to determine space utilization during weekday business hours.

-- 2000, Downtown Design Guidelines Manual.

The guidelines were prepared to help guide responsible design and property improvements in the downtown area toward the goals of economic viability, aesthetic quality, and preservation of valuable resources.

-- 2000, Janesville Downtown Historic Preservation Plan.

This plan was designed to protect downtown Janesville’s historic resources by prioritizing individual buildings and districts for preservation and reinvestment, identifying specific areas and opportunities for rehabilitation and redevelopment and providing design guidelines that promote appropriate development and rehabilitation.

-- 1998, Janesville Riverfront Development Strategy.

This was a guide for developing the Rock River corridor between the Memorial Bridge and the Crosby/Willard Bridge.

-- 1996, Downtown Janesville Economic Enhancement Study “Excitement on the Rock”

Commissioned by Forward Janesville, the HyettPalma study used a comprehensive analysis to define a specific economic enhancement strategy for the downtown.

-- 1988, Downtown Plan and Revitalization Strategy.

This plan contained a long-range physical concept plan, a short-range action plan, and provided the structure to guide and coordinate public and private interests in downtown revitalization efforts.

-- 1987, Forward Janesville Planning and Design Project Final Report.

The purpose of this project was to identify the perceptions of a broad cross section of Janesville residents regarding major problems and opportunities facing their community and to propose alternative future development options.

Last updated: 6:23 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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