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Rock County to buy vacant Pick 'n Save building on Janesville's south side


Rock County has signed an offer to buy the vacant Pick ‘n Save building on Janesville’s south side and plans to turn the former grocery store into a new human services complex.

County officials said Wednesday all human services programs—except those offered at Beloit’s Eclipse Center—will shift to the 129,000-square-foot building at 1717 S. Center Ave. likely by late 2020 or early 2021. The county expects to close on the property by June 17.

The purchase agreement, which includes the building and adjoining parking lots for $4.4 million, must be approved by the Rock County Board.

Developer Jim Grafft and his family bought the property in January 2018 for about $2.9 million. The building has sat vacant since Pick ‘n Save moved out in November 2017.

County Administrator Josh Smith, county board Chairman Russ Podzilni, Director of Human Services Kate Luster and Facilities Management Director Brent Sutherland made the purchase public Wednesday afternoon in an interview with The Gazette.

The purchase is the county’s first step in its facilities master plan, which recommends razing the 47-year-old health care center on County F near the jail and relocating to a new facility.

A Milwaukee architectural firm unveiled the master plan in September.

The health care center currently houses offices for the Department of Human Services behavioral health program; Children, Youth and Families program; and administrative staff. Other department services are offered at the Rock County Job Center, Eclipse Center in Beloit and at facilities on Franklin and Court streets in Janesville.

Other recommendations in the master plan include a new Huber dormitory, an expansion of the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and Rock County Jail, and nearly $15 million in improvements to the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.

About $150 million in facilities upgrades are detailed in the master plan. Officials said Wednesday the health care center likely will be vacated and could be razed in 2024.

Anthony Wahl 

The Rock County Health Care Center was built 47 years ago and served as the county's psychiatric hospital. County officials announced Wednesday that the county intends to buy the former Pick 'n Save building on Janesville's south side for $4.4 million.

Upgrades to the vacant store—including remodeling, buying furniture, engineering and parking lot resurfacing—will cost about $17 million, officials said. In all, the move is estimated to cost $20.5 million.

The Rock County Medical Examiner’s Department, the county’s IT department and emergency operations also are located in the health care center. It’s unclear where those departments will be moved, officials said.

Smith said the general services committee could vote on a resolution May 21 authorizing the purchase and amending the county budget to buy the property using the general fund balance. The full board could vote on the resolution May 23.

Smith said the county likely will borrow money later this year to pay back the $4.4 million siphoned from the general fund balance.

Luster praised the purchase Wednesday, saying consolidating human services programs in a centrally located building near public transit will foster a more hospitable environment for clients and employees.

All divisions of human services in Janesville will be moved to the new building, except for the youth services center. The divisions that will move include the Aging and Disability Resource Center; Economic Support Services; Comprehensive Community Services; Children, Youth and Families, including Child Protective Services; and behavioral health, including outpatient services, crisis intervention and treatment court.

An estimated 350 human services employees will relocate to the new building, Sutherland said.

“Having a centralized site will just lend itself to better care, more efficiencies and employee satisfaction, too,” Luster said. “...I really do see this as a great opportunity. ...We imagine that there will be a new, welcoming, comprehensive environment for folks who need human services in the future.”

Officials said human services employees will have input in the building’s design. In a Wednesday memo to staff, Luster wrote the “extensive” renovations are intended to “make this a welcoming and modern workplace and service environment.”

Officials left the door open to possibly selling a slice of the property’s vast parking lot. Smith said the county won’t know how much parking space it will need until after meeting with engineers and architects.

Design and development are tentatively scheduled from August to September, with bidding opening in early 2020 and construction beginning in April 2020.

Smith said everything in the Rock County Job Center, which the county owns, will be moved to the new building, including job center partners that are not county agencies.

“The intent is to be able to move everybody, which means, in the future, the job center is empty,” Smith said. “…Is that any opportunity at some point to dispose of that asset? Yeah, maybe.”

The purchase comes as some south-side residents clamor for new development and a neighborhood grocery store to replace Pick ‘n Save.

Podzilni said the county didn’t buy the building to enhance the south side, but officials realize it will have an “ancillary effect” there, which should be “very encouraging to other businesses,” he said.

Smith added, “Hopefully, it will be an economic assist for the south side of Janesville.”

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Lengthy facelift on long-vacant apartment building in downtown Janesville nearly complete


The decks on the three-story front exterior wall of 115 S. Main St. are the most eye-popping—and in some units, the most attractive—feature of this downtown apartment building.

Angela Major 

Some units in new apartments at 115 S. Main St. in downtown Janesville will have access to the front patio and balcony.

Inside, it’s the staircase that connects the three levels.

It’s the first thing that appears inside the main entrance. On the second floor, it splits into two smaller staircases that flank it on both sides to lead residents to the third floor.

Above, a skylight provides natural light to the hardwood steps below, even on a dreary Wednesday afternoon.

Building owner Kaley Jenkins wanted to preserve these original features when she began the enormous task of renovating the structure in September 2017.

After nearly two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of repairs, the building is almost ready to welcome tenants. It is perhaps the earliest example of downtown housing reinvestment coming to fruition.

Janesville is fully immersed in an effort to revitalize the city center. As the ARISE project enters its middle stages, city officials and business leaders have emphasized the need for more housing to increase downtown foot traffic.

Most new units downtown are still ideas or are just beginning renovations. That puts Jenkins’ building ahead of the curve.

The building includes six studios and eight one-bedroom units. Jenkins said that is essentially the same as the original layout. Some might know the building as the Marquette for the letters emblazoned above its front steps.

Jenkins has not been able to find much information about its former name—or anything else about it. The building sits just outside the city’s historic district, and any notable facts were lost to years of disrepair and vacancy, she said.

Jenkins, a Wisconsin native currently living outside Seattle while serving in the Air Force, had experience leading other small-scale renovation projects. But those were single-family homes or duplexes, not full apartment buildings, she said.

Downtown momentum attracted her to the Janesville market. She said 115 S. Main St. was “maybe the ugliest one” she saw, but she was undeterred and bought the building for about $270,000.

Because the building is in a tax increment financing district, the city provided $37,000 in TIF incentives, plus another $5,000 for façade improvement, Economic Development Director Gale Price wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Jenkins’ company, Key Real Estate Solutions, poured about $750,000 into fixing the building, which has since been renamed Everett’s Place for her 2-year-old son. Contractors preserved distinctive character features where they could, such as internal milk chutes and original baseboards, she said.

But Everett’s Place received new mechanical equipment, plumbing and electrical components and new high-efficiency windows. Each unit has its own heating and cooling controls. Granite countertops grace kitchens and bathrooms.

Angela Major 

High-efficiency windows and new kitchen surfaces and appliances are part of the apartment renovations at 115 S. Main St. in Janesville.

Monthly rent starts at $700, Jenkins said.

The antiquated mechanical systems provided a greater challenge and forced workers to think creatively. To celebrate the arduous restoration, Jenkins is organizing a barbecue June 29 where construction crews, new tenants and anyone else involved in the project can come together to socialize.

“We really want to create a really strong, professional, young, exciting culture in the building versus just another apartment that you can rent,” Jenkins said. “The building means a lot to us and is very personal. A lot of love has been put into it, so we want to pass that forward.”

Democrats vote to hold Barr in contempt as Trump asserts executive privilege over full Mueller report


Tensions between the White House and Congress boiled over Wednesday after President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege to block release to lawmakers of the special counsel’s unredacted report, and a House committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt.

The high-stakes tit-for-tat marked a major escalation of a legal and political fight that has few parallels since the Watergate era. The disputes are almost certainly headed to court.

“We’ve talked for a long time about approaching a constitutional crisis,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said after the contempt vote. “We are now in it.”

Adding to the turmoil, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee has issued a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, as part of its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

It is the first known congressional subpoena of one of Trump’s children. The subpoena was issued recently, reportedly because Trump Jr. refused to appear voluntarily a second time to answer questions, but its existence became public Wednesday. Trump Jr. also had refused to testify voluntarily to the special counsel’s office.

The day’s dramatic events began when the White House said Trump had asserted executive privilege—for the first time since he took office in 2017—to block release to Congress of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s unredacted report and its underlying evidence.

Hours later, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Barr in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena to hand over the material. The 24-16 vote was along party lines.

If the full House approves the resolution, Barr would be only the nation’s second top lawman to face that sanction.

Mueller’s office had considered charging Trump Jr. with violating campaign finance laws for accepting a meeting in June 2016 with a Kremlin-tied lawyer who, he was told, would provide incriminating information on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Prosecutors ultimately decided they had insufficient evidence to make a case.

Trump Jr. also faced scrutiny for his role in secret election-year efforts to built a luxury skyscraper in Moscow, a proposal that was abandoned after Trump had secured the Republican nomination.

The subpoena by the Republican-led committee, first reported by Axios, put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in an awkward position. On Tuesday, he declared “case closed” on the Russia investigation and urged Congress to move on.

House Democrats pressed ahead despite being stymied by the White House. As the Judiciary committee hearing began, the Justice Department released a letter from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd to Nadler saying Trump was making a preliminary claim of executive privilege.

The step serves as a placeholder, giving the president time to review the materials and consider a more definitive attempt to block congressional access to specific documents.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Trump had “no other option” but to assert executive privilege to counter Nadler’s “blatant abuse of power.”

The White House previously had threatened to invoke executive privilege to restrict testimony by former officials on Capitol Hill, but the letter marked Trump’s first formal assertion of the legal principle that allows presidents to keep private communications with advisers.

Mueller’s report relies heavily on interviews with current and former senior staff members in the White House, most notably former chief counsel Donald McGahn. The White House had allowed them to speak with the special counsel’s office and did not assert executive privilege over the redacted report that was released to the public April 18.

Mueller’s report concluded that the Trump campaign did not illegally conspire with Russia during the 2016 election. It also laid out “substantial evidence” that the president tried to obstruct the investigation but reached no conclusion on whether he had violated the law.

Barr said the facts did not show that Trump committed a crime, a conclusion Democrats have contested.

Lawyers for the Justice Department and the special counsel’s office redacted about 10% of the 448-page report before its public release, and House Democrats insisted they need to inspect the censored material.

Experts said the contempt resolution and the executive privilege claim underscored how quickly relationships had deteriorated between House Democrats and Trump, who has pledged to fight “all the subpoenas.”

“Usually you negotiate for months and months,” said John Yoo, a University of California, Berkeley law professor who previously worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee and President George W. Bush’s Justice Department. “They’re immediately going to the walls of their castles, and they are quickly escalating.”

In addition to battles involving the Russia investigation, Democrats have accused the Trump administration of stonewalling their probes of the president’s taxes and handling of security clearances for several White House aides, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“What is the Trump administration hiding from the American people?” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., during the Judiciary committee hearing Wednesday. “Because the administration is not just stonewalling this committee. They’re stonewalling every committee’s request for information.”

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, said Democrats were seeking more documents because they were unhappy that Mueller didn’t find a case for impeaching the president.

“We think we’re going to find out something more than he found out?” Collins said. “Come on. We’re manufacturing a crisis, and that’s why we’re here.”

Republicans also said Barr was following the law by refusing to turn over the unredacted report, which includes grand jury evidence that is required to be kept under wraps.

They pointed to Boyd’s letter to Nadler, which said Barr “could not comply with your subpoena in its current form without violating the law, court rules, and court orders, and without threatening the independence of the Department of Justice’s prosecutorial functions.”

Nadler disagreed, saying he wanted to work with Barr to ask a judge for permission to have access to the grand jury material.

A full vote of the House on the contempt resolution could be averted if negotiations between committee staffers and Justice Department officials produce a compromise. But that appeared unlikely after the White House’s announcement on executive privilege gave Barr more legal grounds to resist.

House leaders haven’t decided when the contempt resolution would come to the floor, according to Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. He accused the Trump administration of participating in “perhaps the greatest cover-up of any president in American history.”

Hoyer indicated that Democrats are willing to be patient if the contempt proceedings against Barr end up in a lengthy legal battle, which could extend into 2020 and become a presidential campaign issue.

“If it takes a year and a half, that’s a relatively short period of time in the course of the history of our country,” Hoyer said.

There’s precedent for similar court fights to last far longer.

In 2012, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. became the first sitting Cabinet member to be voted in contempt by the Republican-controlled House in a battle over access to Justice Department documents on a failed gun-tracking operation known as “Fast and Furious.”

The legal battle lasted for years after Holder left his position.

“We still don’t have all the documents” from the case, said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., a reminder of how such disputes rarely have tidy or timely ends.

Andrew Harnik 

FILE - In this May 1, 2019, file photo, Attorney General William Barr is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The House Judiciary Committee is moving ahead with a vote to hold Barr in contempt of Congress despite last-minute negotiations with the Justice Department over access to the full, unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)