This summer, Glass Garden owner Judy Shumway has dealt with a tear-up across West Milwaukee Street that has turned a public lot where her customers once parked into a construction site for a new hotel.
And since April, Shumway and her customers have contended with a weeks-long closure of South River Street west of her stained-glass studio and shop in downtown Janesville.
The closure comes as the city converts one block of South River Street to a “festival street” as part of the ARISE downtown revitalization project.
Soon, Shumway and the 45 or so other businesses along West Milwaukee Street west of the river will wrestle with another closure—one that will disrupt traffic for months.
Starting Oct. 1, the arterial link between the east and west sides of downtown—the Milwaukee Street Bridge—will be gone. The aging bridge is being torn out and replaced, a $5.7 million project planned for years. City officials and a state contractor overseeing the work say the project will take about nine months to complete.
By late June 2019, the new Milwaukee Street bridge should reopen, allowing vehicle, foot and bicycle traffic to span the Rock River in the heart of downtown’s riverfront revitalization area.
So Shumway and West Milwaukee Street businesses brace for the bridge project and another one after that: a complete rebuild of West Milwaukee Street in 2020 or 2021.
Some shop owners and downtown business coalitions told The Gazette they’re working on strategies to stay visible to detoured motorists during the project.
But after months of construction, there’s uncertainty for those businesses.
Shumway said after street tear-ups started this year, she saw a 20 percent decrease in sales compared to last summer.
City Engineer Mike Payne said it’s likely South River Street won’t open to traffic until Oct. 12—a couple of weeks after the bridge project officially starts. It’s not clear how long the two projects and their closures could coincide.
Shumway said she’s not sure how customers might respond to detours that skirt around the closed bridge.
“I try to be positive about this. I try to stay positive. I want customers to stay positive, too, because I think all this work downtown—well, it’ll be beautiful when it’s done,” Shumway said. “But customers have had a terrible time parking and getting around this year. Everything, all these projects seem to be going on at once.”
Help and self-help
Emily Arthur, Downtown Janesville Business Improvement District manager, said representatives of the BID and Downtown Janesville Inc. have met with city officials and business owners in recent weeks.
She said West Milwaukee Street businesses west of the river are trying to “stay positive,” but some are concerned about the bridge closure.
“The bridge being out does affect all of West Milwaukee Street. The whole side. It’s not just core businesses near the bridge,” Arthur said. “All of West Milwaukee will be affected because, obviously, you won’t be able to get across the bridge there.”
Arthur said the BID and Downtown Janesville Inc. plan to help businesses weather the upcoming construction projects. Plans include signs along downtown side streets near the bridge closure that show directions to specific businesses and places to park.
Arthur also has tapped the Monroe Street Merchants Association for advice.
The Madison business coalition dealt with a construction project that left Monroe Street torn up most of this year.
Carol Schroeder, who owns Orange Street Imports on Monroe Street, is the association’s chairwoman. Her group prepared for the upheaval by setting up “survive and thrive” kits: sets of store coupons that offered special sales and incentives for customers to brave the Monroe Street tear-up.
Schroeder said her group got a $10,000 matching grant from the city of Madison for a marketing campaign.
Monroe Street businesses also got creative, she said. They hosted a “Hardhat Club” for kids—a special set of sales events that allowed families to bring their children, don hardhats and watch the construction crews work along Monroe Street.
She said such events are evidence of businesses working together to “keep things fun” during a construction project.
Throughout the project, Schroeder said, a coordinator from her group met weekly with construction crews to keep up to speed on the project and service interruptions it might cause.
Alicia Reid, who operates Raven’s Wish Gallery & Studio at the corner of West Milwaukee and South River streets, said she’s trying to bootstrap herself during the project.
Among other strategies, Reid is mailing post cards to her longtime customers to remind them of the bridge project and ask them to continue to patronize her shop.
Reid said about “80 percent” of her customers have a positive outlook on the heavy infrastructure work tied to ARISE. Private redevelopment that’s occurring in tandem, such as the Cobblestone Hotel project, seems to show evidence a revival is taking root.
“A lot of it is about perspective,” she said. “We’re trying to maintain an attitude of looking forward to what’s ahead. It’s a cool thing what’s happening in downtown Janesville, the improvements along the riverfront. We’re trying to say ‘just stick with us, because look at the direction we’re headed.’”
For downtown businesses weathering a slew of recent street tear-ups, an unforeseen breather might be coming.
The West Milwaukee Street reconstruction slated to roll out in 2020 could be put on the back burner for a year.
Payne said the low bid the state awarded for the bridge replacement was about $1.3 million higher than the city anticipated.
Because state and federal funding are capped, the city will have to add the $1.3 million overrun to the share it’s already paying.
Payne said between the bridge project’s cost and other “budget constraints,” it’s possible the West Milwaukee Street rebuild could be delayed until 2021.
Bids were higher mostly because the U.S. tariff on imported steel has increased costs for construction materials, Payne said. Other analysts say the tariff, and volatility tied to it, is creating greater risk for contractors, and that’s leading to a spike in large-scale construction bids.
Payne said the city in mid-August asked the state to move forward with the bridge replacement now, despite the sticker shock. He said if the state had re-bid the work, the project likely would have been delayed a year, and it’s likely the cost would increase.
The aging bridge, which also bears damage from a vehicle crash on its south railing, needs to be replaced now, he said.
For local traffic and those visiting downtown—5,700 to 6,000 vehicles a day, according to state traffic counts—it’s not clear yet which streets will be marked as the main detour around the bridge closure.
Payne and Director of Public Works Paul Woodard said the city first intended to detour traffic onto South Main Street to Court Street. From Court, people who wanted to access West Milwaukee Street would be directed to South Jackson Street.
The city converted Court Street to two-way traffic this summer in part to ready it as a detour for the bridge project.
Now, the city has put in a request to the state Department of Transportation to use Centerway as a designated detour.
Payne and Woodard said motorists likely aren’t accustomed to Court Street being a two-way street. Payne said Centerway—also designated as a federal highway—is better suited for higher traffic volumes and has safer left-hand turn access than Court Street.
Payne said the state won’t make a final call on a detour route until after the city and the state have a pre-construction meeting late this month.
He said motorists can use any open street to navigate around the bridge because there’s “no law” requiring people to use a specific detour.
From the outside, Whitewater’s Oak Grove Cemetery appears like any other pioneer burial ground.
But pass through its historic gate, and you’ll discover the rich stories under the shade of sweeping spruce trees.
“It is an unbelievable walk through history,” said Pat Blackmer on a recent morning as she unlocked the cemetery’s gate.
Blackmer proposed that the site become the city’s 24th local landmark, and the Whitewater Landmarks Commission unanimously approved it earlier this month.
The cemetery’s new designation is a reminder of the importance of saving the past.
The landmark status helps draw attention to the site and educates the public about its history, said Dan Richardson of the landmarks commission.
“That’s the big reason I voted for it,” he explained.
In addition, the cemetery on East Main Street is now protected by local ordinance, Blackmer said.
Among the more than 800 recorded burials are Whitewater’s 19th-century movers and shakers.
The 3-plus-acre site also contains the graves of many soldiers, including Eli Pierce of Vermont and Israel Ferris of New York. Both fought in the Revolutionary War.
“It is unusual to find two soldiers of this war buried at the same site,” Blackmer said.
“This cemetery is one of a few in Wisconsin that can claim this.”
In addition, the site has three graves of soldiers from the War of 1812 and about 40 soldiers from the Civil War, including William Quals of the 29th U.S. Colored Regiment, Co. I.
The gated cemetery is no longer used and kept locked because of extensive vandalism in the past.
But people can visit the property by contacting the sexton, whose information is posted near the entrance.
It is not surprising that Blackmer researched and proposed the site for landmark status.
She is a history lover and retired teacher. She also is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the War of 1812 and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Blackmer and Richardson own Whitewater’s historic Smith-Allen House, an eye-catching example of Italianate-Villa-style architecture built in 1856. The house was designated the first local landmark in Whitewater in 1983. It retains the home’s original horse-hitching post, the only one left in Whitewater.
Blackmer wants other landmark sites in the city to be identified.
“We have more to do,” she said. “We are always looking for people who will make their property a local landmark.”
To get landmark designation, a building, structure or archeological site must either represent an individual or an ongoing historical event that is significant at the local, state or national level.
Or it must be identified with a historic person or people in local, state or national history.
Blackmer fears society has become “disposable.”
“Technology is moving at such a rapid pace,” she said. “People don’t realize that our history needs to be preserved.”
She worries the next generation may not appreciate the value of saving the past.
“Things like history are not always being taught,” Blackmer said.
“Therefore our young people don’t understand the importance of it.”
Richardson cited a quote by author Michael Crichton:
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
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.
Lillian E. Aurit
Frederick W. Bertolaet
Krystoffer S. Dortch
Stewart O. “Pete” Kersten
Richard “Dick” Meredith
Barbara S. O’Leary
The Rust Belt states that provided an election night shocker two years ago—delivering the presidency to Donald Trump—could hand Democrats crucial wins in the midterm elections.
Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump won in 2016 by a total of less than 80,000 votes to put him over the top in the Electoral College count, are looking less like Trump country this year, as Republicans trail Democratic opponents.
The shift illustrates the year’s challenging political landscape for Republicans. Even with a booming economy and record stock market—typically benchmarks of presidential success—the party’s chances of keeping control of the U.S. House have dropped in recent weeks. Trump’s vulnerabilities even threaten the party’s prospects of holding the U.S. Senate, long considered thought safe from Democratic takeover this year.
In 2016, Republicans made major inroads in the Rust Belt and the Upper Midwest when Trump ran up larger margins among rural voters than Republican Mitt Romney had four-years earlier. Trump flipped four states in the region that backed Barack Obama for president in 2012: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. A fifth, Minnesota, came as close to going for a GOP presidential candidate in 2016 as it had since 1984.
The stakes in those states remain high: they collectively are hosting five Senate races, as well as five House contests rated as tossups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take the House and two to win the Senate.
The situation confronting Republicans is typified in Wisconsin, where Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 22,748 votes, or 0.8 percentage points.
While times are generally good in the Badger State—the unemployment rate in July was 2.9 percent, down from 3.5 percent in the month Trump took office, and below the national average—Republican candidates are struggling.
Gov. Scott Walker, once a rising Republican Party star, is fighting for his political life, according to a Marquette University Law School Poll released on Sept. 18. The survey showed Democrat Tony Evers with the support of 49 percent of likely voters, compared with 44 percent for Walker.
Also in Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat pummeled by millions of dollars in negative advertising from conservative groups, led her Republican challenger, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, 53 percent to 42 percent.
Trump’s job approval has fallen to 42 percent in the state, down from 45 percent in Marquette’s August poll. Among independent voters, a pivotal group, 41 percent approve of his performance.
Many voters in Wisconsin, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says is among the states most vulnerable to a prolonged trade war, are also skeptical of Trump’s tariffs on China and other nations. More than half—58 percent—think free trade agreements have generally been a good thing for the U.S. economy, while 25 percent think they have been bad for the economy.
“I certainly think the national forces are affecting voters here,” said Charles Franklin, the poll’s director. “The state is also still pretty opposed to Trump on trade.”
Midterm elections are always a referendum on the president and they typically bring congressional losses to the incumbent’s party. Since the end of World War II, the average midterm election result for the party in control of the White House has been a net loss of 26 seats in the House.
Trump’s approval ratings in the other states in the region are equally low, according to polling in August by Morning Consult. He was at 42 percent in Michigan, 45 percent in Pennsylvania, 44 percent in Iowa and 40 percent in Minnesota.
While not included in the Marquette poll, Republicans are nervous about the congressional race in southeastern Wisconsin to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, even though it’s rated as “lean Republican” by Cook. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the top super political action committee backing Republican efforts to hold the House, said this week that it’s reserving $1.5 million in advertising for the district. In 2016, Ryan swept the district by almost 35 points.
Prospects for Republicans in the other Trump-won states in the Rust Belt aren’t looking much better.
In Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democratic incumbent Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Robert Casey have double-digit polling leads against their Republican challengers and also held massive cash-on-hand advantages in the most recent campaign finance reports.
“The other side is very motivated,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Republican National Committee member and past party chairman in Michigan. “Much of it will depend on turnout.”
In the fight for the House, Pennsylvania looks like one of the better pickup opportunities for Democrats. The state has two ingredients that could benefit the party in this year’s closest House races: suburban swing districts and an abundance of female candidates in a year when women are showing unprecedented levels of political engagement.
Eight of the state’s 18 House races are rated as competitive, using Cook’s broadest definition. Two are rated as “likely Democrat” and two are “lean Democrat,” while three are “lean Republican” and one is “likely Republican.”
The contests for governor in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota are also rated as either “lean Democrat” or “likely Democrat.” Walker’s race in Wisconsin and another in Iowa that features a Republican incumbent—albeit the state’s former lieutenant governor, who rose to the post when long-serving Gov. Terry Branstad became U.S. ambassador to China—are rated as tossups.
John Brabender, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to former Pennsylvania senator and 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, said people shouldn’t be surprised that Republican candidates in Rust Belt states are struggling.
Trump only very narrowly won there and those states have been heavily Democratic in recent history. Plus, Brabender said, Trump was competing against a deeply unpopular candidate in Clinton.
“Unfortunately for Republicans this year, she’s not on the ballot,” he said. “Being pro-Trump may not equate to being pro-Republican.”