Every year, The Gazette attends the ECHO Christmas dinner.
And every year, the story is the same: The volunteers were happy to help, and the diners enjoyed good food, good music and good company.
ECHO, Janesville’s church-supported food pantry and social services agency, celebrated another Christmas dinner at St. William School on Tuesday. And guess what? The volunteers were cheerful as ever, and the diners enjoyed good food, good music and good company.
This year, we would like to give you an idea of what it was like to put the meal together. Think of it as the ECHO dinner meets “The 12 Days of Christmas”—but without the partridge in a pear tree, the golden rings or the lords a-leaping:
The number of volunteers who gave up a significant portion of their Christmas Day to cook, serve, deliver and clean up after a meal for between 400 and 500 people.
Number of gingerbread house centerpieces built by sixth-grade students at St. William School. The dinner has been held at St. William for years, but it also has been held at St. Mary’s, New Life Assembly of God and First Lutheran Church. The meal was started in 1972, according to The Gazette’s archives. In the early years, between 75 and 100 people came every year.
The time meal chefs Josh Stinnett and Jon Gordon arrived. They started their day by cooking themselves steak and eggs for breakfast and “singing between bites,” according to one volunteer.
Stinnett has been helping prepare the Christmas meal for 12 years. He started when he was in the culinary arts program at Blackhawk Technical College.
Or rather, he was “volun-told” to help with the meal. He’s been back every year since then.
Gordon, who is also the chef at the Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving dinner, has been working at both meals for 20-plus years.
Number of loaves Jesus and his disciples used to feed 4,000 followers in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. For the ECHO Christmas dinner, 600 dinner rolls were ordered.
Other items needed to feed the local multitude included:
Number of Kind siblings—yes, that is really their last name—who came from Fort Atkinson to help. Signe, Mikayla, Austin and Brendan Kind have been volunteers at the meal for four or five years, the girls estimated. The story of why a Fort Atkinson family started volunteering is Janesville is a complicated, six-degrees-of-separation kind of thing, but the siblings so enjoyed themselves the first year that it has become a family tradition.
Why do they volunteer their time on Christmas morning?
“To give back—that’s what our parents taught us to do,” Mikayla said.
Number of keys hanging from Santa’s belt. Although he had a long night, Santa showed up to the ECHO Christmas meal.
“Peace on Earth, and I hope everyone has a happy and healthy New Year,” Santa said.
As for the keys, one was for the reindeer stable, the second was a “magical chimney expander” and the last was a skeleton key for the front doors of homes with no chimneys.
Britten Langfoss recalls the stories Janesville residents shared 10 years ago about the Monterey Hotel.
She had asked the public’s help to document the hotel’s history so restoration would more accurately reflect the building’s heritage.
Their memories still reverberate with her, even as the vacant Art Deco building—owned since 1996 by her father, Jim Grafft—languishes with no clear future.
“It resonates so much with the residents here,” Langfoss, vice president at the family’s engine parts business, said about the hotel. “We understand that that’s why they get all worked up about it, but also they have to understand how much it’s going to take to bring it back to its glory. It’s not like it’s something that you can snap your fingers and it happens.
“I think the public, they have a hard time understanding all that goes into a project of this magnitude.”
Despite a public yearning for redevelopment and the city’s recent increased oversight, Grafft and Langfoss told The Gazette the family has no immediate plans to turn the former hotel into what has long been their vision for the property: market-rate apartments with secure tenant parking.
During a 90-minute interview with The Gazette, Langfoss and Grafft aired grievances against the city and defended themselves against criticism that the family has mishandled the hotel on the corner of Milwaukee and High streets.
They insisted the Monterey Hotel is structurally sound and would move to the top of their priority list but only if the city agrees to help finance parking for the property.
City Manager Mark Freitag said that won’t happen anytime soon.
The rocky relationship between city officials and the Grafft family bottomed out Sept. 10, when the city issued a raze-or-repair order for the Monterey Hotel. The message was clear: Make fixes or risk demolition.
The order arrived about a month after a summer building inspection. It requires Grafft to develop a plan and timeline for multiple interior and exterior fixes.
Inspection photos—taken by city Building Director Tom Clippert and provided to The Gazette—show extensive interior water damage, peeling paint, rusty pipes and hallways littered with debris. The pictures are imprinted with the date July 26, 2018.
Grafft submitted a repair plan in October, but city officials questioned its viability. The two sides sparred before coming to terms on a compliance agreement in late November.
Under the final agreement, the Grafft family must remove debris from hallways and stairways by Dec. 31. Langfoss told The Gazette the hallways already have been cleared.
Roof, window and exterior brick repairs must be finished by May 31. Structural work to stabilize a one-story section in the building’s rear must be completed by July 31.
The city is planning monthly meetings with Grafft to check repair progress. The city also has the authority to perform random inspections, Clippert said.
Whether Janesville officials feel compelled to make those inspections depends on the tenor of the monthly meetings and how much progress the Grafft family makes on repairs, Clippert said.
If the repairs stall or don’t meet the city’s standards, the city could take control of the building and raze it.
Grafft said the raze-or-repair order “came out of nowhere.”
Langfoss didn’t consider it a surprise because of the family’s deteriorated relationship with the city.
“It has been building for a long time. When this raze-or-repair (order) came through, now, there’s been years and years of tension building,” she said. “There’s not been a lot of respect regarding the properties. They’ve made things a lot more difficult than they had to be and seemed to hold us to a higher standard.”
That tension dates to at least the 1990s. Grafft had already established business and real estate interests in Janesville when he bought the hotel in 1996 for $350,000 at a bankruptcy court auction.
A 1998 Gazette story about downtown reinvestment mentions how city officials had been pressuring Grafft to renovate the former Rock County Jail on the east shore of the Rock River downstream from Court Street. He had bought the building in 1989.
Grafft told The Gazette in 1998 it would be difficult to convert the jail into upscale offices as he intended. Existing vacant office space inside the Olde Towne Mall and the former Parker Pen building needed to be filled first, according to Gazette archives.
The jail was demolished two years later.
In 2004, Grafft submitted a bid to buy the former armory across from the hotel on High Street. The city rejected his bid, which was less than half of the building’s assessed value.
A city memorandum from that time quotes then-Economic Development Director Doug Venable as saying Grafft’s plan for the armory “would not likely further redevelop the neighborhood,” according to Gazette archives.
Grafft’s plans for the Jeffris Theater, located directly east of the hotel, also never came to reality. He began demolishing the back end of the former cinema in 2007, but he planned to preserve the Milwaukee Street façade and incorporate it into an improved hotel.
Eight years after the city issued a condemnation order for the theater, the rest of the edifice was knocked down. The space next door to the hotel remains a vacant lot.
During those projects, progress at the Monterey Hotel lagged.
The city cited Grafft for hotel code violations in 2009. The family said their other business interests took precedence. Hotel completion timelines came and went or got kicked further into the future.
The longtime stalemate over the hotel belies downtown’s progress just a few blocks east.
From the newly christened ARISE Town Square west of the river, the old hotel’s upper floors peek over the horizon and serve as a reminder of work yet to be done.
Public and private money have started to give downtown Janesville a facelift. But the hotel casts a shadow on the downtown’s west end, where the riverfront’s glow has not reached.
“It’s certainly detrimental to the ambiance that we’re trying to create with a revitalized downtown,” Freitag told The Gazette. “In the big scheme of things, empty buildings, underutilized properties in the future of ARISE, that doesn’t speak to a revitalized downtown. In a revitalized downtown, we want all our storefronts being occupied. We want our second- and third-story apartments occupied.
“We want activity. An empty building is not encouraging that activity.”
Freitag knows Janesville cannot force development at the hotel as long as the building meets city codes. The city likely would not use eminent domain to take the building, although he said “never say never.”
He said the short-term goal of the raze-or-repair order is to ensure public safety.
This year, Janesville launched a vigorous effort to address empty and dilapidated buildings. It hired a vacant building coordinator and created a vacant property registry. It issued raze-or-repair orders on four buildings, three of which are downtown—the hotel, the former Town and Country restaurant building on South River Street and a storefront on North Main Street.
Janesville has spent the past few years demolishing a handful of city-owned buildings in disrepair. The strategy was to “clean up our own house” first, then encourage owners of rundown properties to do the same, Freitag said.
Whether the city is turning up the heat on certain property owners depends on whom you ask.
Clippert said it was “a coincidence” that he issued multiple raze-or-repair orders in the late summer and early fall. The buildings had become a “nuisance and a safety issue” after being allowed to deteriorate for years.
Freitag acknowledged the city is getting more aggressive with code enforcement to spark redevelopment. He didn’t know why some buildings crossed a threshold of disarray this year rather than in the past, but vacant structures only invited public safety concerns, he said.
Plenty of vacant or underused structures fill the area of West Milwaukee Street near the hotel. Grafft said redeveloping the hotel would likely kick-start development on the west side of downtown.
Grafft and Langfoss said they are working on converting second-floor spaces in the 400 block of West Milwaukee into walk-up apartments.
Economic Development Director Gale Price said there is some fledgling activity on that side of downtown. The city is talking to property owners about second-floor apartments, and the former Sons of Norway building recently sold.
Those projects can happen independent of any plans at the Monterey, but a redeveloped hotel would inject life into the area, Price said.
“This stuff can happen organically on its own, but it can get accelerated if you have somebody making a major investment,” Price said. “That’s, I think, a key. If the Graffts can successfully rehab that building and turn it into residences, then that’s going to drive other interest in Milwaukee Street.”
But to do that, the Grafft family has maintained they would need tax increment financing assistance from the city to make any rehab project work.
They have never formally submitted a project proposal with a TIF request.
Langfoss said they made a presentation to the city about five years ago. Poster boards showing renderings of that proposal were scattered in a conference room when a reporter visited the family’s office building on North River Street.
The presentation happened behind the scenes. It never made it to the plan commission or city council because city staff made it clear they did not support the project, Langfoss said.
The plan would have converted the building into roughly two dozen high-end apartments. Residents would have parked in a surface lot behind the hotel, and the public would have had access to a second-level parking deck, she said.
The plan called for the city to pay north of $1 million to help finance the public-private parking lot. Costs have risen since then, Langfoss said.
Grafft said public-private parking lots are not unusual. There’s one in downtown Beloit. Residents of a hotel-turned-apartment building have access to underground parking with a public, ground-level surface lot above it.
“We’ve had some discussions about the TIF funding,” Langfoss said. “But it’s been very difficult to move forward without them being supportive of the parking we feel is necessary for the high-end apartments that we think would be the best use.”
Freitag said the Grafft family is welcome to include a parking structure as part of a TIF request, but it would have to be part of an overall redevelopment proposal for the hotel.
He admitted the two sides might be “talking past each other” and miscommunicating on the parking issue. To his knowledge, Grafft has always wanted the parking structure to be a public-private lot, and the city is unwilling to consider that, Freitag said.
Janesville doesn’t want to explore building a parking structure on the west side of downtown until it reaches a “steady state of traffic flow” in the area. That won’t happen until at least 2021, when several major downtown construction projects are scheduled to finish, he said.
Freitag also didn’t understand why the structure had to be multiple stories and include the city. A covered surface lot behind the building would likely have ample parking spaces for all hotel residents, he said.
So how do the two sides reach a compromise?
“That’s really up to the Grafft family because I don’t have an obligation to build parking for their facility by any means,” Freitag said. “The city doesn’t. I say I, but the city doesn’t have any obligation to build parking for the Grafft family.”
Grafft said parking is necessary because the tenants he plans on attracting would not want to park luxury vehicles outside in the elements. And you can’t plug in a Tesla on the street.
He pointed to a 2014 consultant study commissioned by the city that examined downtown revitalization efforts. It recommended market-rate apartments should include enclosed parking areas, which could perhaps be achieved through a public-private partnership.
Had the city supported parking, the Monterey Hotel would have been converted into residences years ago, Grafft said.
He rattled off a list of redevelopment successes, projects where he said Janesville didn’t get in the way: Olde Towne Mall downtown, Court Square on West Court Street, a former theater off Kennedy Road converted into an industrial building. And perhaps most notably in recent years, The Venue, a former appliance store-turned-event space in downtown that took only about a year to complete.
Freitag said the Monterey Hotel’s longstanding vacancy threatens to overshadow the good the family has done for Janesville.
Through the years, a few people have expressed interest in purchasing the hotel. Grafft said he has turned them away and “protected” the building.
The prospective buyers would have misused the hotel. Their plans, such as a building full of one-bedroom, low-income units, would have been the “kiss of death” for downtown, Grafft said.
Some people believe Grafft has no urgency to reinvest in the hotel because he makes rent off the cellular network antennas on the roof. Langfoss said the public is “very uneducated” with how much they assume the family earns from deals with two cell phone companies.
Renting out the roof won’t go on forever, but the income has been helpful to cover the property’s holding costs until it gets redeveloped, she said. The building generated a 2018 property tax bill of roughly $8,500, according to Rock County tax records.
Grafft declined to say how much money the family earns from the cellular antennas.
“That’s none of your business,” he said.
Langfoss criticized the city’s timing for its raze-or-repair order. It will be difficult to complete construction projects during winter, she said.
The Monterey has risen to the top of the family’s priorities because of the ordered repairs, but the stopgap fixes are “unproductive resources” because they do nothing to support true redevelopment, she said.
Angus Young, which is compiling a structural assessment of the building, told the family the hotel is not in imminent danger. The report is not finalized, and the family as of Dec. 19 did not have a copy, Langfoss said.
But once the repairs are completed, all signs point to the building remaining vacant indefinitely.
Price said the city in October had a preliminary TIF discussion with the family but has not heard anything since.
Langfoss said the family’s mindset has always been to complete the easiest projects first. The vacant Riverfront Centre at the west end of the Milwaukee Street bridge might be the next one because of its proximity to downtown’s current bustle. Bids are out for that project, but she gave no timeline for its completion.
The Monterey Hotel’s timeline will begin when the city supports Grafft’s vision for the building, the family said.
“I’ll go on record saying we said that we would make it our top priority to do it if we had the support from the city that we’ve been looking for,” he said. “Frankly, the Monterey keeps on going down to the bottom of the pile because without the support, it’s not our high priority.”
Janesville officials would be “brain dead” to not believe the family’s plan is the best use for the building, Grafft said.
Langfoss said despite their frustrations with the city, the family has maintained control of the hotel because they have long recognized its potential.
“It’s a beautiful structure that there’s not many buildings like that in the city of Janesville or even the state. We’re very lucky to have it in downtown Janesville,” she said. “We’d like to see it brought back to life.
“We have a vision, but until that vision is shared by the city, it’s going to be hard for it to achieve that final outcome that we think the building deserves.”
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