Jerry L. Bell
Michael J. Frank
Lillian “Lil” Luchsinger
Michael “Mike” J. Risch
Bruce David Topp Sr.
The smells of coffee grounds and sweaty hockey equipment wafted through the lobby of the Janesville Ice Arena as dozens of children chattered excitedly before hockey practice on a recent Wednesday.
Championship banners hung from the arena’s rafters, and spotlights shone onto the groomed ice. The bleachers were filled with parents who had come to watch their kids skate.
As Janesville debates where it could build a multimillion-dollar ice arena and sports complex, supporters of the project say there should be no doubt about the need.
Ice time at the city’s 45-year-old arena is in such demand it’s causing injuries among users, they say, and having more ice sheets and indoor athletic space would generate $15 million to $17 million annually in economic activity.
They point to the Janesville Youth Sports Complex, which draws thousands of people every summer, as an example of the excitement an indoor sports facility could spark.
In late April, the Janesville City Council authorized spending $25,000 for the design and business phase of the project, and the Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau kicked in $25,000 as well. The two also split the cost of a survey and feasibility study last year.
The council is looking at five locations. They are the Janesville Mall, a vacant lot by Wright Road and Milwaukee Street, another vacant lot near the Youth Sports Complex, a two-block area downtown and a location off Kettering Street.
Each site has pros and cons, said Jennifer Petruzzello, the city’s neighborhood and community services director.
Petruzzello said the mall location is still being discussed, and the price could be lower than originally thought. The big question is whether the rink would be attached to the mall or in a separate structure.
One advantage of that site is its proximity to restaurants and retail options. The nearby Interstate exchange also allows for easy access, and city infrastructure such as water and sewer mains are already in place.
But the site does have issues.
Part of the property likely would be sold to the city, but the price is unknown. Another issue is layout.
“The design would be a little bit more restricted by the design of what’s already there, compared to a clean slate in a green field,” Petruzzello said.
The second option, the Wright Road parcel on the city’s east side, is also accessible with neighborhood restaurants nearby, Petruzzello said. Other open parcels in the area could be developed as separate economic projects.
Negatives include the distance from hotels, stores and restaurants on Milton Avenue.
The third option, a lot near the Youth Sports Complex, likewise has accessibility, and people are already used to traveling there for youth sports, Petruzzello said. The city owns the property, so the development price would be lower.
The last two options were added at a July 22 city council meeting.
Dan Silha offered a seven-acre parcel off Kettering Street, north of Interstate 90/39, at a price of $500,000—available after the Interstate expansion finishes in 2021.
And three property owners have expressed interest in discussing a fifth option: a combined 3.8-acre space downtown that sits south of the YMCA of Northern Rock County and west of the Janesville Transit Center.
City officials now must look at designs and prices for each location before making a choice.
Janesville considered building a new ice arena a decade ago when the North American Hockey League brought the Janesville Jets to town.
Instead, the community chose to rehabilitate the existing arena. Today, the 45-year-old building is showing its age.
“The economy, when we got here 10 years ago, was literally on the heels of GM closing,” Jets President Bill McCoshen said.
“Today it’s much more dynamic, and there’s more investment and more jobs,” he said. “The economic difference is spectacular, and I think this arena would benefit the next few generations of Janesville.”
He said a new facility would improve the fan experience, such as offering a video scoreboard for replays and fan interaction.
“In a new two-rink facility, we could do even more,” he said. “The potential is unlimited to bring events that would fill restaurants, fill hotels and have people filling up gas tanks at local gas stations in Janesville. It’s a win-win-win.”
Petruzzello also said the city’s growth has sharpened the need for a new arena.
“I think they (the Jets) are a very valued part of our community. Youth hockey continues to grow,” she said.
The need also can be seen at the high school and youth hockey levels.
The Janesville Bluebirds, the city’s boys co-op hockey team, have a hard time scheduling practice time. The team shares the rink with the Jets, the Janesville Youth Hockey Club, figure skating clubs, adult leagues and others.
“During the season, we’re the only team that doesn’t have a practice on our off days,” Bluebirds coach John Mauermann said.
Mauermann said the team could go weeks without practicing and has lost about 20% of its ice time because of tight scheduling.
When they do practice, the Bluebirds often split the ice with the area girls team, the Rock County Fury. If the Bluebirds want to practice on Thursdays, practice must be at 5:45 a.m. because the figure skating club gets the ice after school.
“What brings people to Janesville in the winter? It’s hockey,” Mauermann said. “A new hockey rink is not a burden. It’s an asset.”
At the youth level, the J-Hawks also need more ice time.
More than 230 kids currently participate in youth hockey, but that number could be even higher, said Ed Chady, Janesville Youth Hockey Club president.
Chady said the organization would benefit from a new arena in many ways.
The 12-and-under groups sometimes practice until 10 p.m. on school nights, and multiple teams share the ice at a time.
Last year, the club had three concussions among the 7- and 8-year-olds—all during practice when four teams were sharing the ice.
The organization could bring in a lot more revenue with a new arena, Chady said. Youth hockey gets the ice for an entire weekend only twice a year because of scheduling.
“Tournaments bring in some serious revenue to the community, and we could be hosting a lot more of them,” he said. “Sun Prairie has two rinks, and they’ve got a tournament almost every weekend. They’re close to 20 (tournaments) a season, and we have two.”
Not everyone is sold on the idea.
“Why do we need it though?” asked one Facebook commentor who responded to a Gazette article.
“Just like the ice arena, you can’t skate because all the leagues buy up all the time. Yet your taxes pay for it. Let the leagues combine funds and build their own building that’s just for them,” another comment read.
The Gazette was unable to reach other opponents for comment.
The blueprint for a proposed sports complex calls for a multi-use facility.
A feasibility study suggested two ice sheets, a flexible athletic space and recreational space.
One ice sheet would be permanent, while the other would be temporary. The permanent rink would include 1,600 seats, and the temporary sheet would seat 250.
Possibilities for non-ice areas include tennis or basketball courts and turf fields. A playground and/or walking track is under discussion along with a skate-sharpening room, pro shop and party rooms.
Petruzzello said the local economy would get a big boost from the facility.
The temporary rink could be disassembled so the facility could host basketball or volleyball tournaments for extra revenue, she said.
“We’re trying to meet a local need where we’re hearing programs aren’t utilized to their full capacity, and users are using the rink at times that are not really conducive,” she said.
The building is estimated to cost $24 million to $29 million and likely would be financed through a public-private partnership, Petruzzello said.
The city would have to borrow money for the project, so it will look for grant opportunities, private donations and fundraising opportunities.
Petruzzello said the project could have a net impact of $13 million and create more than 170 new jobs. The feasibility study estimated it would generate up to $17 million in revenue.
“It’s a project that would have a long-term impact and have a long life expectancy,” Petruzzello said.
About 165 miles northwest of Janesville, the village of West Salem is proud of its new athletics complex and indoor ice rink.
The facility was constructed through a school district referendum rather than the public-private partnership Janesville is considering.
West Salem High School Principal Mike Malott said the community has benefited from the project.
“It’s such an upgrade from what we had,” he said. “People are proud of it and know that it’s a unique opportunity.”
Hockey coach Eric Borre agreed.
“We had more people attending games than we did in the old rink. There was a lot of excitement and people wanting to come see what hockey is about here,” he said.
“Whether it’s a first-grader learning to skate, a middle school broom-ball tournament or high school game, people can come and be comfortable and have fun.”
If Janesville builds a new sports complex, Petruzzello said the city will do it right.
“This is a long process and a big project,” she said. “It’s something we take seriously, so we want to make sure we have a good quality project at the end if we do build the facility,” she said.
Petruzzello expects the preliminary schematic design and business plan will be done by the first week in September.
A community engagement forum on the project is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 25 in city council chambers.
The new Ashley HomeStore is among a core of new, bright spots along Humes Road, one of several strip mall spaces that were once defunct, yet in the past few years have been revived by developers and niche retailers.
Inside, the furniture store is a contemporary showplace, a huge conglomerate of curated living room and bedroom sets between walls of earth tone, all under minimalist lighting that hangs from the white ceiling. Sales staff pace the floor with clipboards.
And … there are customers.
Then there’s the defunct, 100,000-square-foot building to the west, right next door. The former Shopko.
The building officially is joining the ranks of more than 200,000 square feet of vacant, defunct retail spaces that over the past few years have sat idle along Janesville’s chain retail corridor along Milton Avenue and Humes Road.
The dark stores include the former Sears store at the Janesville Mall and Toys R Us. In a new national retail landscape, former stalwarts of consumerism such as Sears have faltered into corporate restructuring while owners of huge category killers such as Toys R Us have crumbled under their own weight into bankruptcy liquidation.
In Janesville, the Sears and Toys R Us properties were owned by the retail companies themselves. When the companies shuttered the stores, the properties moved through a sometimes protracted maze of federal corporate bankruptcy machinations, shuffling of ownership, and ultimately, as liquidators in the retail world like to say, “disposition.” That’s real estate-ese for “unloading unused, unneeded property.”
City of Janesville Economic Development Director Gale Price said such properties aren’t without tire-kickers interested in future prospects, but a property tied up in an out-of-town bankruptcy dealing presents a waiting game for those with a local economic development stake.
“The process has to weed itself out and, yeah, that’s always frustrating because it’s usually never fast,” Price said.
And it’s a lot of space—more than 4.5 acres—and that’s not counting parking lots, berms, terraces and easements. Price called that much raw retail floor space inventory “unusual.”
“Those are big, big spaces to have open and available out there on the market. You know, and it’s all at once. It’s part of the nature of the beast in the retail world right now, I guess,” Price said. “But there’s a path forward, which is good. That’s what you want to see.”
It took several months, but the needle has moved on the 80,000-square-foot former Sears store. The Janesville Mall’s new owner, RockStep Capital, bought the Sears store and its standalone auto center and assumed ownership of it early this summer, mall manager Julie Cubbage said. The property is now bundled into the acres of vacant space, including the former JC Penney and Boston Store spaces that are now owned by the mall and being offered as property available for some kind of reuse.
Cubbage said the mall has seen prospects for reuse for its vacancy, even a tentative agreement on the remnant former JC Penney space, but she said the JC Penney deal is “on hold” as the mall pursues a bid with the city as a possible location for the future home of an ice arena and sports complex.
Cubbage said that some vacant department store spaces open at the mall are a better fit than others for an indoor sports complex. But Cubbage said some prospects for reuse of the former Sears, Boston Store and JC Penney spaces right now hinge on the city’s decision later this fall on where it would site a sports complex—and whether the ultimate location could be the mall.
Meanwhile, the former Toys R Us space, a 30,000-square-foot “mid-box” store on Milton Avenue finally cleared some corporate bankruptcy hurdles and went on the market this spring. It’s for sale (or lease), according to listings by Mid America Real Estate.
Mid-America agents handling Janesville’s former Toys R Us didn’t respond to Gazette inquiries. But in a blog post earlier this year, the company wrote that people shouldn’t immediately consider the monolithic, tombstone look of a shuttered Toys R Us store as a sign of retail doom.
“The news of these brands vacating space suggests opportunity and dollar signs$$$” for newer-age retailers such as bargain mattress sellers, casual clothing and consignment clothing chains, casual restaurant chains, and “As-Seen-on-TV” retailers, Mid America wrote.
Whatever the case, the former Toys R Us in Janesville is now being advertised as the fall location of a Halloween pop-up store—the same Halloween store that for years was a seasonal tenant at the strip mall space that now houses the new Ashley HomeStore.
The new Ashley HomeStore’s manager, Jessica Thorson, said she sees irony in the Halloween store’s change in venue.
There’s also a twist of irony in Thorson’s ringside seat next to the failed Shopko. Until a few months ago, Thorson was an employee at Shopko’s Fort Atkinson store. That store, like the Janesville location, was one of a handful of stores that Shopko tried to keep open as it clung to a failed bid to find investors that would rescue the underwater bargain retailer from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
As of this month, the Janesville former Shopko now stands hollowed out, its inventory fully liquidated, vacant inside except for the Shopko Optical—the only remaining vestige of business that has survived Shopko’s failed bid out of corporate bankruptcy earlier this year. The eye care center continues to trundle along, although to get there customers must walk down a long aisle partitioned with a white plastic tarp that blocks the acres of dead-store space surrounding it.
Private investment firm Monarch Alternative Capital now owns all of the former Shopko properties. A firm it’s partnering with, New York firm Raider Hill Advisors, is overseeing “all leasing, redevelopment, asset management, and disposition activities for the national portfolio of (former Shopko) retail properties totaling 5.5 million square feet across 14 states,” Raider Hill wrote.
Brian Zabell, executive vice president of Raider Hill, told The Gazette his company doesn’t comment to the media on its real estate dealings. He declined to give clues as to the Janesville property’s future.
In an online prospectus, Raider Hill disclosed that the former Shopko properties in Green Bay, Stevens Point and Belvidere, Illinois, are located in economic “opportunity zones”—locations that would allow special, federal tax incentives for redevelopment. In Janesville, Shopko is located on the cusp of a city tax-increment financing district the city established in 2017 to aid redevelopment of the blighted, former Menards Property off North Pontiac Drive.
The same owner who worked with the city to turning the former Menard’s property into a multi-store retail center also owns the strip mall located next to Shopko—the property that now houses Ashley HomeStore. Price said that owner was able to redevelop and land leases with retailers in the strip mall without the use of city tax incentives.
A Shopko Optical store manager told The Gazette that this fall the eye care center will move out of the building and into another location farther west on Humes Road.
Thorson said Ashley HomeStore is aware of that plan.
“I’d like to think that means the building would go on the market this fall,” Thorson said.
What apparently is not happening—and it’s a rumor that Cubbage said the Janesville Mall has tried to address on its social media pages—is that Kohl’s plans to leave the mall and move into the former Shopko.
“That rumor is false. Why would Kohl’s move from a location in Janesville that customers recognize, where they do lots of volume, and not to mention where they have extra (warehousing) capacity? Why would they move down the street into a 40-year-old standalone store that an owner would have to pay to completely renovate and convert?” Cubbage said. “That makes no sense.”