Redevelopment plans unveiled Tuesday show Janesville's former General Motors plant site will rely heavily on an attribute few area industrial sites have: ready-made railroad infrastructure.
April J. Blaszak
Julie Ann Brown
Mark Thomas Wolfe
A few months after the cacophony of demolition, the former General Motors plant site at 1000 Industrial Drive—now named Centennial Industrial Park—has become eerily quiet.
Nearly all of the plant’s buildings and smokestacks have been torn down and removed. Commercial Development Company, the property’s owner, and the city of Janesville consider that the first phase of a long-term plan to redevelop the 114-acre site as a multiparcel industrial park.
Aside from a few stockpiles of scrap metal big enough to dwarf the machinery that sorts them, the site appears to be cleared. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see acres of thick concrete slabs that remain in the ground.
They form the network of foundations in the former plant’s footprint—tens of thousands of cubic yards of concrete.
Under city rules and the requirements of a $500,000 state redevelopment grant, Commercial Development must give the city a second-phase demolition plan that, in part, shows how it intends to remove the concrete slabs and foundations.
But when it comes to all that concrete, Commercial Development has a different idea.
In a Sept. 16 letter to the city, Enviro Analytics, a Commercial Development subsidiary in charge of site demolition and clearing, wrote that it’s “deferring” a second-phase plan until “early 2020.”
The company wrote that it is entering four or five months of regulatory work with the state Department of Natural Resources. Some of that work hinges on the idea that Commercial Development might reuse some concrete slabs at the main plant site.
The slabs could serve as foundations for future industrial developments, the company said, or as an “environmental control”—essentially a concrete blanket that caps the ground beneath a heavily used industrial site.
Enviro Analytics’ letter was a response to a pair of letters city Building Director Tom Clippert sent the company in July 2019 and Aug. 28, 2019.
Clippert wrote that a second-phase demolition plan under city ordinance “must include the removal of all hard surfaces, including floor slabs and foundations” and also requires plans for “restoration” and erosion control, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
Commercial Development still faces DNR review of a soil and water site investigation report and an environmental remediation report that Enviro Analytics must have approved before it can move forward on a phase-two plan.
The company wrote that its remediation report will include engineering that considers the “reuse of some of the existing hard surfaces” at the main plant site.
Clippert last week declined to discuss the company’s idea of reusing the concrete despite the city’s requirement that it be removed.
Commercial Development did not respond to a Gazette inquiry on the status of its work at the site.
Commercial Development has owned the former GM plant site and the 112-acre Janesville Auto Transport Co. site to the south since 2018.
Later that year, the company released an early redevelopment concept that showed how it would clear and break up those sites into multiple parcels that could use rail infrastructure already onsite.
Late last month, the company submitted to the city a preliminary redevelopment plan, which calls for a mix of light-industrial projects, such as warehousing, distribution or intermodal transport development.
Gale Price, city economic development director, said the planning and economic development offices have seen Commercial Development’s plans. He said they’re under review but could be headed to the plan commission as a planned-use development proposal.
That proposal later could be broken down into individual sites the city could consider separately as developers or others show interest, he said.
Price said Commercial Development’s new plans are similar to the first-blush concepts released in late 2018. Baked into the preliminary plan is the reuse of the concrete slabs.
Redevelopment plans unveiled Tuesday show Janesville's former General Motors plant site will rely heavily on an attribute few area industrial sites have: ready-made railroad infrastructure.
Price said any decisions about concrete at the site will be based on local, state and federal environmental rules. But he said the city will review the preliminary redevelopment plan before it and the DNR decide on the concrete.
Bill Mears, a Janesville commercial real estate broker who is working with Commercial Development, said he’s not sure how much concrete the company will want to earmark for possible reuse.
He said Commercial Development or the DNR could consider the concrete to be important to keep in the ground as an environmental “cap.”
But Mears believes the chief reason for reusing the slabs is that they are thicker than new construction foundations. Developers might find value in building directly on top of the slabs, he said.
“I think the idea would be to leave all the slabs. That’d be the best thing,” he said. “And then if you don’t need them, you remove them. But right now, you’d hate to just remove them and then later somebody comes to you and says, ‘Jeez, I sure could have used those foundations.’”
Price said that in some cases, other developers around the U.S. have covered unneeded concrete slabs with soil and planted grass over them.
City Manager Mark Freitag said last week that he has learned Commercial Development is targeting 2020 as the start of the second phase of demolition at the GM site.
He said the company hopes in late 2020 to secure a “closure letter” from the DNR—an approval of environmental cleanup that would clear the way for redevelopment.
Freitag said the former JATCO site—a blacktopped auto shipping yard south of the GM site—already has a DNR closure letter and is being marketed for sale, either to an immediate user or another developer.
“It’s ready for somebody to do something with,” he said.
Although the main plant site remains under environmental review, Mears said he has been in talks with two parties interested in projects there.
Mears did not disclose whether those parties were developers or industrial users, or whether they were looking at the plant site or the JATCO site.
He said one party has a development plan that relies on rail spurs at the site, but the other party’s project does not hinge on rail access.
Freitag acknowledged that after months of demolition at the former GM site, the comparative quiet now might make some people anxious about Commercial Development’s next step.
Freitag said the company has indicated it’s willing to act directly as a redevelopment agent, although in the past, Commercial Development has cleaned up defunct industrial sites and then sold them to other developers.
Freitag said he considers both strategies “reasonable” options.
He said regardless of the path Commercial Development takes, people should be patient and realize it could take several years to kindle interest in projects at such a large site.
“I’m just interested in seeing this thing cleaned up by 2020,” Freitag said. “And hopefully, (Commercial Development) is talking to folks about the redevelopment part.
“I would hope they’re trying to set this up so that the second they get that closure letter, if they’ve got an interested purchaser or buyer … they could start doing something.”
Bonnie Eddy’s son, Coltin, did not tell his mom that he was in the thick of battle when the young Marine went nose-to-nose with Islamic State fighters in Mosul in 2017.
“He didn’t want me to worry,” Eddy said.
Ronda Russell-Gunn does not know what her son, Cody, does on Army missions.
He is a special operations staff sergeant and says little about his work.
Both Rock County moms are looking forward to brighter holidays this year because their only sons recently returned from Iraq.
For Eddy, it will be her son’s last deployment.
“My son, Coltin, will become a veteran in December,” she said. “He’s coming home for good.”
But Russell-Gunn is among parents who still have children serving in war zones around the world and who still go to bed worried about their safety when they are deployed.
Since the height of the U.S. ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of parents in her shoes has shrunk considerably.
But some 5,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in Iraq and more than 12,000 in Afghanistan.
The first time Russell-Gunn’s son, Cody, went to Iraq was in 2009 for a year.
“Family and friends were nervous,” Russell-Gunn said. “... We were still very much at war, and even if your soldier comes back physically in one piece, you still worry about what he has encountered and if it will change him. He still doesn’t say much about what happened.”
Cody’s second deployment to Iraq was the day after Christmas 2018.
“I couldn’t see him last year because, for weeks before a deployment, he has to mentally prepare for it,” Russell-Gunn said. “He’s never out of Army mode as he gets closer to deployment.”
She wanted to be joyful on Christmas but found it difficult knowing her son was leaving for Iraq the next day.
This year, she might see Cody but doesn’t know yet if it will happen.
His third deployment will be to Afghanistan.
Since age 4, Cody has told his mom that he was going into the Army.
“It really didn’t hit me until I had to say goodbye to him 10 years ago,” Russell-Gunn said. “He’s my only child, so I placed him in God’s hands. I know if anything happens to him, it is exactly what he wanted to be doing.”
Since 2008, she has hung the American flag on her town of Beloit home above a sign that reads: “Home of a soldier.”
Veterans Day, which is Monday, is extremely meaningful to Russell-Gunn.
“I get teary-eyed every time I see a soldier in uniform,” she said. “I know the sacrifice they and their families give.”
Until last week, Eddy never knew when her son would return overseas.
“After the Marines go on a deployment, they come home again for a while to decompress,” Eddy said. “I’ve never been to Mosul. I’ve never seen war. My son has seen things I never will see.”
Coltin’s second and most recent deployment was to Baghdad for seven months.
“I would ask him how things were there, and he would say ‘Quiet,’” Eddy said. “But it is never quiet. There is always something going on.”
Shortly after Coltin returned to the United States, protests erupted across Iraq.
“America doesn’t realize what these young men and women go through,” she said. “Some have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when they come home. There are lots of suicides. It’s not a pretty picture.”
Eddy of Beloit coped with the uncertainty of her 22-year-old son’s deployment by praying.
“My faith in God is what gets me through,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. Being able to talk to my church family keeps me sane. They all know he was in the hotspots, so we all prayed for him. We pray for all his brothers and sisters in arms.”
Eddy wants residents not to forget U.S. troops and their service.
“The only time our military comes to the forefront is if there is direct fighting going on,” Eddy said, “or if someone is killed.”
When she learned that Coltin will be coming home in December, Eddy said: “It is the best thing in the world that I could ever have.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.
Corey Bauch is eager to explain why he regrets not voting for Donald Trump.
The 44-year old-agreed to meet with me last week in this rural Wisconsin town (population of 1,500), where he has lived most of his life. As we talked, horse-drawn buggies from the local Amish community rolled past a small outpost of stores on their way to nearby farms.
The libertarian Bauch was one of the few in rural Wisconsin who didn’t support Trump in 2016, saying he reminded him of an arrogant boss. But after the election, he began to see the president’s outspoken style as an antidote to Washington’s pervasive corruption.
“I love the fact that everyone is being held accountable,” said Bauch, who now laments not recognizing the president’s potential. “Everyone is dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s because he’s going to call them out.”
He plans to vote for Trump next year.
Trump can win re-election in a number of ways: He could win back moderates in the suburbs, make inroads with black and Hispanic men or persuade white working-class women not to abandon him. He could also reassemble, almost to the voter, the razor-thin but winning coalition he built in 2016.
But perhaps the most likely way the president can win next November—and the way Republicans are already preparing in earnest for him to pursue—is with voters such as Bauch, in rural regions of key battleground states, who didn’t back Trump in 2016 but are inclined to do so now.
“Are there more low-propensity rural voters to add? Is there more meat on the bone?” said Mike Shields, a former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. “The answer is yes. And the data backs it up.”
When Trump won in 2016, he did so by delivering a shock landslide in rural America. But rather than see his breakthrough as a high-water mark, the GOP wants more. And although it won’t be easy, Republicans insist—and Democrats privately agree—Trump can get there in places like rural Wisconsin.
Democrats are taking the threat seriously. It’s why various arms of the party, even before the party selects a nominee, have launched their own counter-effort in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida—dead-set on running the kind of effective campaign in these places they say was missing during the last presidential election.
And although it’s terrain where Trump has a distinct advantage, Republicans (often quietly) make one more point about his effort with rural voters: If Trump fails to increase his margins with rural voters, he likely loses reelection.
“He needs to increase it. There’s no doubt about it,” said Scott Walker, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin. “Because Hillary Clinton underperformed in Milwaukee.”
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Jim Ryczek doesn’t like Trump, but he does marvel at how the president talks. The 71-year-old retiree had arrived at this bar in Mauston, a small town located an hour’s drive north of Madison, to talk politics and eat a lunch of pizza and cheese curds with a dozen fellow Democrats—many of whom sipped on Bloody Marys with beer chasers.
Soon the conversation turned to the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Islamic State, and the bombastic way Trump had spoken of it just a few hours earlier. Ryczek shook his head: If Barack Obama had announced al-Baghdadi’s death, he said, the former president would have emphasized its “geopolitical” implications.
The Democrats, he added, simply don’t know how to talk to their friends and neighbors—but Trump does.
“Trump just said, ‘He’s a bad son of a bitch, and we got him,’” Ryczek said, eliciting murmurs of agreement from the other Democrats.
Democrats readily acknowledge that even a well-crafted, perfectly executed strategy to win over rural voters will likely only reduce his support by a few percentage points. Trump’s connection with those voters, combined with a decadeslong political realignment that has made Democrats increasingly suburban and urban, make any other outcome a near impossibility.
But they also say they have no other choice: Fail to make a real effort with rural voters, and the party’s presidential nominee will suffer the same fate as Clinton. Take Juneau County, for example, where Ryczek and other Democrats gathered for lunch.
In 2008 and 2012, Obama won it twice, with 54% and 53% of the vote, respectively.
But Clinton managed just 35% of the vote there in 2016. And even if her raw margin of defeat was just 3,000 votes, she faced a similar steep drop in support across much of rural, northern Wisconsin—enough (combined with an underwhelming showing in the Democratic hub of Milwaukee) for her to narrowly lose the state by about 23,000 votes.
“If we want to win in 2020, we cannot afford to ignore this segment of the electorate and hope for the best,” said Shripal Shah, vice president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “We have to cut into his margins and close the gap.”
Of the Democrats’ many rural-focused initiatives launched after 2016, American Bridge’s effort is the most significant: The group said it plans to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertisements, focused on the top 2020 battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
American Bridge has a specific message in mind, too: Ignore the cultural argument and focus entirely on the economic consequences of the Trump administration. And instead of relying on the usual format for political ads—a narrator with an ominous voice, paid actors and gray-tinted footage—it’s set out to find real Trump voters in 2016 now eager to speak out against the president.
The mission is boosted by the internal view at American Bridge that Trump’s policy agenda has been uniquely harmful to rural voters: tax cuts that most benefited wealthy Americans who live elsewhere, a health care bill that would have removed protections in an area where the safety net is already threadbare and a trade war with China that has hammered farmers.
In footage of one potential ad shared with McClatchy, a Pennsylvania man who says he voted for Trump in 2016 has since changed his mind about the president, bemoaning his tweets and push to repeal the Affordable Care Act before vowing to vote Democratic in 2020.
American Bridge officials say their assessment of the rural battlegrounds led them to conclude that most of the voters most likely to defect from Trump in 2020 are white, middle-aged and married—and have some history of voting for Democrats in their past, whether for Obama or someone like Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
There aren’t enough of those voters to replicate Obama’s margins in rural Wisconsin, American Bridge officials reiterate, but even small reductions would devastate Trump.
“If we can get him down in some of these places to 81, 80% … again, that sounds like he’s blowing us out, but that’s the difference between him winning and losing,” said Elan Kriegel, a Democratic data analyst who studied Wisconsin’s rural electorate as part of the American Bridge project.
Of course, American Bridge’s ads and their exclusive focus on Trump side-step one critical component of the battle for the rural vote: the Democratic nominee. If there’s one reason GOP strategists are confident Trump can maintain and expand his margin with these voters, it’s because they see the leading Democratic contenders, including candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, as the sort of coastal liberals hopelessly unable to connect in the heartland.
Others aren’t so sure the problem is their candidates swinging left. The Democrats gathered in Mauston, for instance, blamed Juneau County’s poor performance on defections from Bernie Sanders supporters, who were furious at the Democratic primary process and uninspired by Clinton. The idea that Sanders would make the most formidable Trump foe in rural Wisconsin has at least one surprising Republican advocate.
“I worry about him the most because I think a lot of voters, particularly in the bubble, forget it’s more about a gut check than a policy list,” said Walker, the former governor, who emphasized that rural voters would be drawn to Trump’s authenticity and anti-establishment moxie. “It’s a gut-check thing.”
Back in Mauston, the pizza had gone cold but the Democrats kept talking about local politics, next year’s national convention in Milwaukee, and, of course, Trump. Ryczek recalled how back in 2016 he would make the 2½- hour drive between Juneau County and Green Bay and see nothing but Trump signs, calling it “obvious” that Clinton was in trouble.
I asked the group whether they thought, three years after Trump won overwhelmingly in this county, Democrats would be able to do any better next November. About half of those left sitting around the table said they thought their party would.
The other half weren’t so sure. “It’d be marginal,” Ryczek said. “Not as much as people think.”
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Rural America is sometimes talked about as if it’s one big farm. That’s a mistake; it’s a region where often many of the jobs are in health care, manufacturing and many of the same businesses that are found everywhere else in the country.
But agriculture is still the region’s most important industry. And because of that, Trump might have reason to worry.
The president’s trade war with China, one that has exacted the highest price the country’s agricultural industry, has been the subject of endless political analysis, all asking whether the nation’s farmers will revolt against Trump.
In interviews with Republicans and Democrats, however, a surprising consensus emerged: Trump is as popular as ever in the farming community, nearly all of which is happy to deal with some short-term financial loss because they’re happy an American president is taking on China.
But they also say if Trump doesn’t make real, tangible progress on a trade deal by this time next year, the political consequences in that same community could be disastrous.
“He’s getting close to where he’s gotta get some deals done,” said Tony Kurtz, a Republican state lawmaker who represents a mostly rural district that includes Mauston. Kurtz, who is also an organic farmer, met me one morning at a Starbucks, before he was to return home and harvest his own crops.
“Anybody can put up with a little temporary pain, but now the pain’s … you’re getting toward the end, people are in the field combining, getting their crops, and now they’re getting some checks in the mail and it’s, ‘Now wait a minute,’” he said.
Kurtz emphasized he thought the farming community was still fully behind the president and praised deals he’s struck to lower agricultural tariffs with other countries, like Japan. (Kurtz attended a White House ceremony in October to celebrate the signing of that trade deal.)
But increased tariffs in China aren’t the only problem Trump has with farmers in Wisconsin. In one of the most significant missteps of the still very early 2020 election, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told a Madison audience of dairy farmer in October that small to mid-sized dairy farms might simply not survive.
Wisconsin Republicans said Perdue’s comments were still reverberating in the state a month later.
“It’s not helpful at all,” Walker said. “I like Sonny. Sonny has a great farm background, a veterinarian. I just don’t think that’s helpful.”
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Still, Walker and Kurtz are both bullish overall about Trump’s ability to expand his base of support in rural Wisconsin. They cite the economy’s strength, Democrats’ fixation on suburban and urban voters, and the president’s preternatural ability to define his opponents.
They also point to what is, in their view, a massive, well-prepared and highly motivated political apparatus—operated by the Trump campaign, Republican National Committee and Wisconsin Republican Party—that they believe will extract every last possible rural vote.