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Rock County's tourism spending rises again in 2018


Tourism spending in Rock County rose in 2018 for the eighth consecutive year, growing by 3% from 2017, according to tourism data released Friday.

Visitors spent $251 million in 2018, up from $244.7 million in 2017, and generated $30 million in state and local taxes. Janesville contributed $145 million to the county’s tourism spending.

In Walworth County, visitor spending climbed by 4.6% to $569 million, ranking it the sixth-most prolific tourism economy in the state. Walworth County marked its largest increase in tourism spending in a year since 2011 to 2012, when it ballooned by $45.4 million.

Meanwhile, Rock County ranked 12th among Wisconsin’s 72 counties, down a peg from last year.

Christine Rebout, executive director of the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the bureau commissioned Janesville-specific tourism data for the first time. She said Janesville’s visitor spending was highest in the third quarter last year, which is information the bureau previously hadn’t recorded.

In 2018, Janesville netted a 2.7% increase in visitor spending. Retail raked in $41 million, and food and beverage followed with more than $38 million. Growth was strongest in the retail and lodging sectors, according to data commissioned by the bureau from Tourism Economics.

In previous years, Rebout has said Janesville and Rock County’s hotel occupancy was nearly maxed out and that visitor spending could “plateau” if new hotel rooms weren’t added locally. She said visitors have been forced to stay in neighboring markets with available rooms.

Two hotels being built in Janesville—Cobblestone Hotel and Suites, 20 W. Milwaukee St., and TownPlace Suites, 2706 Pontiac Place—will add about 120 rooms by fall.

The 52,000-square-foot Mariott TownPlace Suites is being billed as an “all-suite/extended stay” hotel—the first of its type in Rock County, according to city memos. It’s slated to open in June.

Rebout said boosting the number of hotel rooms countywide could move the needle and propel future tourism spending.

“It’s not just about the hotel rooms. … We know that somebody who stays overnight is going to spend more money because they’re going to need those extra meals, they’re going to forget something,” Rebout said.

Angela Major 

Workers place tiles on the side of the future Cobblestone Hotel on Friday in downtown Janesville. Tourism officials say two hotels being built in Janesville could boost future tourism spending.

Rebout said new restaurants and ongoing downtown development could be contributing to Janesville’s spending hike. Places such as Lark, the Bodacious Shops, and Velvet and Tulle, for example, are pricier than other businesses and require visitors to spend more than they otherwise would at chain retailers, she said.

New data indicating Janesville’s peak season last year was from July to September is revealing, Rebout said. That information will help the bureau strategize and “move the needle when we need to,” Rebout said.

Kathleen Seeburg, executive director of the Walworth County Visitors Bureau, pointed to burgeoning festivals in Walworth County for its swell in tourism spending. She said the state’s advertising in outside markets is paying off.

New festivals such as Ribfest at the Walworth County Fairgrounds and the Geneva Lakes Burger Throwdown are drawing crowds and “really intriguing the general public and getting them to come to our area,” Seeburg said.

Walworth County also is seeing an influx of visitors from outside of the Chicago metro area, including Canada, Missouri and Minnesota, Seeburg said.

“Our area is definitely widening,” Seeburg said.

Angela Major 

The Cobblestone Hotel is currently being built Friday, May 3, 2019, in downtown Janesville.

Trump discusses 'Russian Hoax' in long call with Putin


President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin discussed what Trump again dismissed as the “Russian Hoax” in their first known phone call since the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s extensive meddling during the 2016 election campaign. Putin chuckled about Mueller’s conclusions, Trump said.

During their conversation Friday, which the White House and Kremlin said lasted more than an hour, they also discussed a possible three-party arms control pact with China, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Ukraine and the crisis in Venezuela, where Moscow is propping up the current government over the U.S.-backed opposition.

“We had a good conversation about many things,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.

Trump said the two leaders were considering a new nuclear agreement “where we make less and they make less. And maybe even where we get rid of some of the tremendous firepower that we have right now.” He said they had discussed the possibility of including China in the deal and that China would “very much would like to be a part of” it.

But more interesting, perhaps, was what was left unsaid.

Trump said that, at no point, did he warn Putin not to meddle in the next election. And while he and Putin did discuss Mueller’s findings , they appeared to gloss over Mueller’s description of the extensive efforts Russia took to interfere in the 2016 election, including the 25 Russians indicted for that effort.

“We discussed it,” Trump said of the report. “He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that, ‘It started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse,’” Trump said of Putin. “But he knew that because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever. So pretty much that’s what it was.”

Trump has repeatedly declined to publicly rebuff Putin for the 2016 operation.

And their latest conversation suggests that Mueller’s findings have done little to persuade Trump of the gravity of the threat of foreign election interference or derail his efforts to forge a closer relationship with Putin.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later said Trump didn’t tell Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election because he’s made that clear in the past. “He doesn’t need to do that every two seconds,” she said.

Mueller’s report concluded that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was “sweeping and systematic.” Ultimately, Mueller’s investigators did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, but they found multiple contacts. Indeed, the report concluded that “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

Trump has focused only on Mueller’s top-line conclusions, hailing the lack of evidence of a conspiracy as a political win.

Trump tweeted after the call that the two had discussed the “Russian Hoax” among other topics.

“As I have always said, long before the Witch Hunt started, getting along with Russia, China, and everyone is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he wrote.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer slammed Trump for failing to press Putin on the report’s “extensive evidence that Russia hacked our elections,” saying: “Trump’s priorities are appalling and undermine democracy.”

Trump said he and Putin had instead focused on other topics, including the possibility of the new nuclear arms deal between the U.S., Russia and China. He said U.S. officials had broached the idea with the Chinese during ongoing trade talks and that China was “excited about that, maybe even more excited than about trade.” Discussions on a new nuclear deal, he said, would likely begin shortly between the U.S. and Russia, with China potentially added “down the road.”

Trump did not say which arms control agreement he and Putin had discussed, but the Russian state news agency Tass reported that they talked about the New START treaty, the last major arms-control treaty remaining between the U.S. and Russia.

The treaty, which was signed in 2010 and expires in 2021, restricts both the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on a maximum of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.

“There was a discussion about having—extending the current nuclear agreement—as well as discussions about potentially starting a new one that could include China, as well,” Sanders said.

Trump earlier this year announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, a decades-old nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Trump accused Moscow of violating its terms with “impunity” by deploying missiles banned by the pact. Moscow denies violating it and has accused Washington of being in non-compliance.

Trump’s decision to exit the INF treaty reflected his administration’s view that it was an unacceptable obstacle to more forcefully confronting not only Russia but also China. China’s military has grown mightily since that treaty was signed, and the pact had prevented the U.S. from deploying weapons to counter some of those being developed by Beijing.

“The world has moved on from the Cold War and its bilateral arms control treaties that cover limited types of nuclear weapons or only certain ranges of adversary missiles,” National Security Adviser John Bolton told The Associated Press last week. “Russia and China must be brought to the table.”

A Kremlin readout of the call said the two presidents confirmed their mutual desire “to intensify dialogue in various fields, including on issues of strategic stability,” but gave no details about a possible arms deal.

Trump said the two also spoke extensively about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia last week to meet with Putin. Sanders said Trump said several times that it was important for Russia to continue to help put pressure on North Korea to denuclearize.

The statement released by the Kremlin after Friday’s call said Putin stressed that “Pyongyang’s conscientious fulfillment of its obligations should be accompanied by reciprocal steps to reduce sanctions pressure on North Korea.”

On Venezuela, Trump insisted that Putin “is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.” That’s despite the fact that Russia has forged a political, military and economic alliance with Venezuela over many years and is helping to support President Nicolás Maduro’s embattled government.

The U.S. and about 50 other nations take the position that Maduro’s re-election last year was irrevocably marred by fraud and he is not the legitimate president. In January, the administration took the unusual step of recognizing Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader of the National Assembly, as interim president.

The Kremlin said that during the call, Putin stressed that only the Venezuelan people have the right to determine the future of their country. The statement said that outside interference in internal affairs and attempts at forceful regime change in Caracas undermine the prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.

Bryan Wegter 

UW-Whitewater’s Connor Spear delivers a pitch during a WIAC game against UW-Stevens Point Friday, May 3, 2019, at James B. Miller Stadium.

Paul Benson appointed as newest Janesville council member


One of the qualities that separated Paul Benson from a crowded and talented field of city council hopefuls was his understanding of big-picture issues, Council President Rich Gruber said.

“He hit every one of the important issues from my perspective,” Gruber said. “He came well prepared, and I have every confidence he will continue to be prepared.”

The council selected Benson as its newest member Friday night to fill a vacancy. Jens Jorgensen resigned last month to take a job in Fond du Lac.

Benson emerged as the top choice ahead of Lonnie Brigham, Jo Ann Koltyk and Andy Udell. All were tabbed as finalists Wednesday night during a meeting that trimmed the field from 10 candidates to four.

Benson is a Janesville native who moved away to attend law school at Arizona State. After living in the Phoenix area for 10 years, he and his wife returned to Janesville because they saw positive changes in an up-and-coming city, he said.

In his mind, some of Janesville’s biggest challenges extend beyond the city. These include state-imposed levy limits and disproportionate state shared revenue, dark-store lawsuits, and a recycling market hampered by China’s decision to ban imported recyclables.

Benson, a lawyer, hopes a bipartisan bill to end dark-store lawsuits will pass the state Legislature. As for making revisions to levy limits and the shared-revenue formula, he would lobby with peer cities such as Eau Claire and Appleton that also get shortchanged by the state, he said.

Closer to home, Benson said Janesville should explore improving its bicycle infrastructure. Benson has primarily used a bike instead of a car since 2011, he said.

All four candidates have served on city committees and have other community service. Before voting, the council encouraged whomever was not chosen to consider running for election next spring.

Brigham said Janesville has become his adopted home after leaving Chicago. In a much smaller city, he said he has found his calling as a community activist.

All five people who spoke during public comment supported Brigham. Those included two Rock County municipal officials, Milton Mayor Anissa Welch and Beloit City Council member Clinton Anderson.

Koltyk said it was important for the council to consider viewing issues from something other than an upper-middle-class perspective. She was excited about downtown redevelopment but worried that future attempts to revitalize the adjacent Fourth Ward could weaken the neighborhood’s sense of community.

Udell, a Janesville native, said he has been able to take a long view of how the city has changed. He wanted to strengthen relationships to extend ARISE momentum and be a cheerleader for Janesville.

In the first round of voting, Benson earned three votes and the others each received one. The council voted again because it was not a majority. Council member Sue Conley flipped her vote from Koltyk to Benson to finalize the choice.

All six council members voted unanimously to ratify Benson’s appointment. He will finish the remaining year of Jorgensen’s term.

Benson wasted no time in taking his first council action, making a motion to adjourn shortly after joining the dais.