City officials have heard critics express a distressing critique about Janesville: It’s the city of slow and no.
City Manager Mark Freitag used his state of the city speech Thursday night to lay out his case against that description.
Freitag delivered the annual address to a room full of residents, staff and government officials to give a “macro view” of what strategic goals the city met in 2017 and what’s in store for 2018 and beyond.
The city manager spent the vast majority of his hour-long speech reviewing Janesville’s accomplishments from last year, many of which show it’s not a city of slow and no, he said.
Freitag read a glowing email from Steve Doran, a developer behind local hotel and retail development projects set in motion last year.
Doran had nothing but positive things to say about working with the city, especially Economic Development Director Gale Price, Building and Development Services Manager Tom Clippert and Planning Services Manager Duane Cherek.
“If not for your staff, their business-like mentality and willingness to creatively problem solve, I don’t think this project would ever had come to fruition,” Freitag read from Doran’s email.
After reading the email, Freitag awarded each of the staffers mentioned a city coin.
“We got a good thing going on in Janesville right now,” he said.
Freitag shared other 2017 statistics to illustrate his point:
- Tax increment financing deals led to 88 new jobs and 287,000 square feet of newly developed space. The city issued 93 more home permits and 208 more building permits last year than it did in 2016, Freitag said.
- The city will soon see the former General Motors plant redeveloped. The city also will conduct a feasibility study this year for an indoor sports complex, he said.
- The median home value has increased, as has income. Unemployment dropped a full percentage point. The poverty rate also dropped, and while it’s still above the state average, it’s lower than the national average, Freitag said.
Things are booming downtown as well, Freitag said.
“Momentum is the key word,” he said.
Last year, the city completed the first phase of improvements to the west side of the town square and completely removed the parking deck that once spanned the Rock River between the Milwaukee and Court street bridges.
Before the year is done, a fountain will be built on the west side, a new fitness court will be installed nearby, River Street will be converted into a festival street, and Court Street will be converted to two-way traffic, Freitag said.
In 2019, the east side of the town square will be complete, and a pedestrian bridge over the river will be built to connect the two sides. It will be a beautiful part of downtown residents will visit for photos or to show off to visitors, Freitag said.
“This is where you’re gonna go,” he said.
Park Place Performs!, which launched a year ago, gives residents and staff an easy way to track how the city is accomplishing its strategic goals. Also last year, the city allowed residents to receive water utility bills through email and pay them online for the first time.
“We finally hit the 21st century,” Freitag joked.
Despite some snags, the city is moving toward removing the Monterey Dam and restoring the affected shoreline. The plan is to remove the dam and fix the shoreline this year and attend to the Monterey lagoon next year, Freitag said.
The city is seeing its lowest crime rate in 25 years. Law enforcement safely handled the manhunt for Joseph Jakubowski, the largest incident of its kind in Janesville’s history. For the first time, the Janesville Fire Department last year responded to more than 10,000 calls for service, but the city will hire firefighters in March to help balance the workload, Freitag said.
Despite the successes, Janesville still faces challenges, Freitag said.
One is a low share of state revenue, which is only slightly offset by an additional $583,000 the city will receive annually through 2022.
If the city were to climb one rank among peer cities in how much state-shared revenue it receives, Janesville would get another $6 million annually, Freitag said.
Other challenges include the loss of institutional knowledge when longtime city employees retire, increasing costs to provide services, and a lack of resources to meet community expectations, he said.
Freitag ended his address by calling on residents to volunteer. About 600 residents volunteer to help the city throughout the year, and that help is “critical,” Freitag said.
“When I think about 2017, that was a heck of a year,” Freitag said. “Janesville is open for business, and we’re going to get the job done.”