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Janesville Mall's buyer gives dose of optimism, realism on mall's future


The leader of an investment group that plans to buy Janesville Mall offered local business leaders an equal dose of optimism and realism about the retail center’s future Wednesday.

Andy Weiner, president of RockStep Capital Real Estate Investments, the Texas firm that will buy the Janesville Mall in coming weeks, said RockStep considers the 600,000-square-foot mall as the “number one” property out of 45 malls the company has eyed over the last year and a half.

But Weiner made it clear that the 100,000 square feet that will be left vacant when Boston Store closes later this summer likely will take “two or three years at the best” for RockStep to fill.

Unlike the former JCPenney space, which was partially filled in 2015 with Dick’s Sporting Goods and Ulta Beauty, the Boston Store space may draw a tenant or tenants that are not retailers, Weiner said.

During an hour-long talk Wednesday in a vacant storefront in the mall’s concourse, Weiner told local leaders it remains to be seen if his firm will land retailers to replace Boston Store.

“The answer is maybe. (Current mall owner) CBL (Properties) has been talking to a few. We’ve been talking to a few,” Weiner said. “But there’s also a possibility it could be a corporate office for a corporation that’s expanding or coming into the market. It could be a major fitness facility. It could be something with the local school district or a technical college” if those entities sought to add satellite campuses.

Weiner predicted that within a few years, malls such as Janesville’s will have a blend of “60 to 70 percent” retail space and “30 to 40 percent” alternative, nonretail companies.

“In the old world, a tenant left and another retailer came right back in. Today’s world is a little different,” he said. “There are retailers that will come back in, but not as many. So you’ve got to become superb at alternative uses.”

In a quarterly report in April, CBL Properties announced it planned to sell the mall to RockStep for $18 million. That price was a steep discount compared to the $33.2 million CBL paid for the mall in 1998, years before the rise of online sellers such as Amazon.

The mall had been for sale since 2017, according to commercial real estate listings. RockStep entered into a binding contract to buy it around the time Bon-Ton announced its plans to shutter its stores, including the mall’s Boston Store.

That was the latest chapter in the mall’s struggles with large-scale tenant losses and retail vacancies.

Wednesday, Weiner told The Gazette that RockStep hopes to close on the mall “sometime this summer,” but he couldn’t give a definite timeline.

Weiner said if RockStep closes on the mall, it will be able to offer “by far the lowest cost of occupancy for any major new user coming into the market,” which stems from the comparatively low purchase price of the mall.

He said the mall’s recent “millions of dollars” of renovations, including a newer roof and parking lot, were also boons.

He said potential tenants could run the gamut of “entertainment” options. He said RockStep developed a “high-end” bowling alley at a mall it owns in Mississippi.

The company also is open to developing restaurants or even multifamily apartments in unused or underused areas of the mall, including in parking lot space, he said.

Weiner called the pending closure of the Boston Store “a tragedy,” given the fact that the store ranked as one of Bon-Ton’s best-performing locations.

But he said the mall has a “great future”—even though it might take two or three years to fill the Boston Store space.

The remaining space in the former JCPenney site, along with the soon-to-be-vacant Boston Store space, make up about 25 percent of the mall’s footprint.

Candidates for new retail tenants likely could be “discount” fashion retailers and other discount stores that have shown themselves to be more resistant to pressures of online giants. Weiner listed several examples of such retailers, some of which already operate locally.

RockStep focuses solely on shopping mall properties. The firm owns and manages 7 million square feet of mall space, and Weiner said it buys malls mainly in midsize to small markets.

RockStep was interested in Janesville because the mall showed itself to be resilient, filling the former JCPenney space with new retail within a year of the retailer’s departure. He said the city’s core retail market currently has little large-scale vacancy, and the nearest competing shopping malls—those in Rockford, Illinois, and Madison also owned by CBL—are at least a half-hour’s drive away.

He said RockStep plans to pull in investments from about two dozen states, and he noted his firm seeks to engage potential local investors, too.

Local investors might have the best ideas of what retail or alternate uses might fit, and local involvement in repositioning the mall could provide conduits to local municipal authorities when it comes to dealing with issues such as parking and potential rezoning, Weiner said.

John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, the city’s chamber of commerce, said he has heard “genuine concern for the viability of the mall” from local business operators.

“It’s in the context of what you read about throughout this country with closed malls and the difficulty that so many of them have. When you have companies like Macy’s closing stores, you start to wonder what’s happening,” he said.

Beckord said Weiner “gave clarity” Wednesday to local stakeholders that online sellers garner just a fraction—about 15 percent, Weiner said—of total retail sales, and that malls can react to online sales pressure by becoming more diverse.

“Let’s not overemphasize this online threat. But we have to learn to live within the context of a world that has changed. And that change is you can now buy shampoo using your phone,” Beckord said.

“On the other hand, this idea that you can combine ‘entertainment’ and retailing at one location, whether that’s for young kids, teenagers or adults, you’ve got opportunities for adults to go to a location. In this climate, that’s important. We do have winter here.”

Anthony Wahl 

Janesville Mall’s sign along Milton Avenue advertises space within for lease.

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United Way launches Dolly Parton program to give books to kids


A city manager, a police chief and a couple of dozen preschoolers walked into Blackhawk Technical College on Wednesday for a far-from-ordinary story time.

The occasion kicked off a program that will put thousands of books into the hands of young children over the next three years.

Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther and Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore read two stories to children from YWCA Childcare and Janesville Community Day Care at the United Way Blackhawk Region’s launch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

The Imagination Library is an international program that gives children a book every month from birth through age 5, said Mary Fanning-Penny, CEO of United Way Blackhawk Region.

The United Way chapter has invested $150,000 in a three-year rollout of the program, which will provide books to Janesville, Beloit and Edgerton children, Fanning-Penny said.

The nonprofit hopes to expand the program to more communities in the future.

Country singer Dolly Parton, who started the program more than 20 years ago, was inspired to promote early childhood literacy because her father was unable to read and write, according to a news release.

One of the Janesville School District’s five-year promises, established during the 2017-18 school year, is that 90 percent of third-graders will read at or above grade level.

Having good reading comprehension skills by third grade is an indicator of long-term literacy, said Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal, who spoke at the launch with Edgerton Superintendent Dennis Pauli and Beloit Superintendent Darrell Williams.

But reading has to start much sooner than that for a child to be successful, Pophal said.

Children who grow up with at least 20 books at home attend three more years of school than children from homes with no books, Fanning-Penny said, referring to research conducted by the University of Nevada.

Educators see significant gaps in reading skills among children of different socioeconomic backgrounds, Pophal said. Children from affluent families are exposed to, on average, 42 million words by age 3, while children from low-income families hear an average of 12 million words by that age.

Pophal commended the United Way for bringing the Imagination Library to Rock County. He believes it can help close literacy gaps.

“Early literacy is the human rights issue of our time,” Pophal said.

The United Way will work with organizations that support low-income families, such as libraries and food pantries, to get students enrolled in the program, Fanning-Penny said.

Parents in Janesville, Beloit and Edgerton also can enroll their children online.

The United Way will contribute $2.10 per child per month toward wholesale books and mailing costs, according to the release. The Imagination Library organization will cover overhead and administrative costs.

Children will receive their monthly books in the mail. All kids in the designated communities are eligible and can be enrolled at any age between birth and 5 years old.

The children and adult leaders who attended Wednesday’s launch listened—some more intently than others—to Luther and Moore read stories.

Luther read “Jake at Gymnastics” by Rachel Isadora in English and in Spanish. Moore read “Pretend” by Jennifer Plecas.

Both books are on Parton’s book list.

Moore read in a calm voice, engaging kids along the way. Curtis Luther read with a bit more charisma, adding facial expressions and different character voices.

The police chief shared a secret: Curtis Luther is a good book-reader because she has four kids of her own.

“I practiced on my youngest last night,” Curtis Luther said.

Abrahamson won't run again


Shirley Abrahamson, the longest-serving Wisconsin Supreme Court justice in state history and the first woman to serve on the high court, said Wednesday she will not seek re-election next year, setting up a wide-open race to replace her.

Abrahamson, 84, issued a statement calling her decision “difficult” but saying the time was right to step down.

“For a variety of reasons, I have decided not to seek re-election,” Abrahamson said. “It is the right decision for me. More importantly, it is the right decision for the state.”

Abrahamson, part of a two-justice liberal minority on the seven-member court, said she would encourage qualified candidates to run to succeed her. The election is in April 2019.

Abrahamson has been dealing with an undisclosed illness in recent weeks, causing her to miss court and participate in cases by telephone. Her statement did not address her health. But Abrahamson said she intends to remain in office through the end of her term, which is July 31, 2019.

Conservatives currently control the court 5-2, but that will drop to 4-3 in August when the newly elected Rebecca Dallet is sworn in. With Abrahamson’s retirement, conservatives have a chance to increase their majority back to 5-2.

Gov. Scott Walker’s former chief legal counsel, Wisconsin Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn, said Wednesday he was strongly interested in running and hoped to make a decision soon. Lisa Neubauer, chief judge of the state appeals court who was appointed in 2007 by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, issued a statement saying she also was considering a run and wanted to decide quickly.

Many others are expected to take a more serious look at the race now that Abrahamson is out.

Doyle, the former governor whose father hired Abrahamson in 1962 to work at his law firm, called Abrahamson “one of the great leaders in Wisconsin government.” He credited her with working to demystify the court by holding hearings around the state and meeting with school groups and others to discuss its work.

In addition to breaking barriers for women, Doyle said Abrahamson has been a champion of civil rights and civil liberties, a protector of basic constitutional rights, and a strong advocate for open government and public records.

“She brought the court to the people of Wisconsin by the force of her own personality, by the decisions she rendered and is somebody who really looked to protect the people of Wisconsin and their basic constitutional rights,” Doyle said.

Abrahamson served a record 19 years as chief justice, from 1996 to 2015. But a law that took effect in 2015 then gave justices the power to decide who would be chief justice, rather than it going automatically to the most senior member.

Conservatives voted to replace Abrahamson with Justice Patience Roggensack. Abrahamson sued in federal court but lost.

Roggensack declined immediate comment on Abrahamson’s decision not to seek re-election.

A New York City native, Abrahamson has long been recognized as a top legal scholar nationally and a leader among state judges. She has written more than 450 majority opinions and participated in more than 3,500 written decisions during her more than four decades on Wisconsin’s highest court.

Appointed to the high court by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey, a Democrat, in 1976, Abrahamson won re-election four times to 10-year terms starting in 1979. She broke the record for longest-serving justice in 2013, her 36th year on the court.

As the court became more conservative, Abrahamson and the newly elected justices clashed more publicly. Through it all, Abrahamson has maintained that she’s an independent voice.

“When I joined the court, I was given a voice—a voice that I have not hesitated to use,” she said Wednesday. “The best expression of appreciation I can give the people who have elected and repeatedly re-elected me is to continue to speak with the clarity, forthrightness and compassion that come from a life I have tried to devote to service and to justice for all.”

Child who took her own life had suicide prevention plan at school


A 12-year-old who killed herself Saturday had a suicide prevention plan in place at school, her mother said.

Rebecka Coughlin’s daughter, Ellizabeth “Lizzy” Jacobson, killed herself at their home.

Coughlin blamed her daughter’s suicide on an extended depression that started after her father died from an overdose in 2016 and on the kids who bullied her at school. She also thinks the Janesville School District should have done more to let her know about her daughter’s issues.

Last year, while Ellizabeth was a student at Madison Elementary School, the school’s counselors and teachers put a suicide prevention plan in place for her, her mother said.

The suicide prevention plan listed triggers that would make Ellizabeth’s depression worse. The school and the family worked together to develop ways to deal with those triggers and get through the difficult times, Coughlin said.

Coughlin thinks the suicide prevention plan was part of her daughter’s individual education plan, which is more commonly referred to as an IEP. Such plans are agreements between parents and a school’s teachers and specialists. The plans determine what kinds of academic, psychological and social supports are needed for each child.

Ellizabeth had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and received support for that and other issues, her mother said.

Coughlin believes the plan carried over to Franklin Middle School, but she wasn’t sure Wednesday. Ellizabeth never brought home the paperwork for the middle school IEP meeting, Coughlin said.

Federal rules require IEP meetings be set for times “agreeable to the parents and the school,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the Janesville School District, it’s usually done with a phone call and a follow-up letter to the student’s home address, said Patrick Gasper, district communications specialist.

Coughlin acknowledged she had paperwork at home about the IEP.

Coughlin said she called the school once about her daughter being bullied, and her mother—Ellizabeth’s grandmother—spoke to teachers once.

Coughlin called after a boy pulled her daughter’s bra strap.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” Coughlin said. “That’s sexual assault—that’s not OK.”

School officials called her back to tell her they had spoken to the boy involved.

“They said he was very remorseful,” Coughlin said. “They said he didn’t realize what he had done was wrong, and he felt bad about it.”

Coughlin’s mother went in to complain, but Coughlin doesn’t think anything was done to follow up on those complaints.

Federal law prohibits the school district from commenting on individual cases, Gasper said.

Gasper said the school district had 13 bullying complaints on file for all students during the 2017-18 school year.

“We have a protocol and process in place for all administration to follow when a bullying complaint is received, and the administration must send all documentation to the pupil services office once the bullying complaint investigation is completed for review,” Gasper wrote in an email.

Such complaints must be reported to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The district uses several behavioral programs designed to improve school climate. One of the primary programs is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, more commonly known as PBIS. The program stresses respecting yourself and others.

The district also uses Second Step Curriculum at the elementary and middle school levels. This specifically covers anti-bullying issues.

Coughlin believes the schools should have a “zero tolerance” for bullying.

She acknowledged Ellizabeth’s father’s death started her daughter’s downward spiral.

Coughlin took her to counseling, but Ellizabeth eventually refused to attend more sessions.

“She wasn’t angry anymore,” Coughlin said. “I think she was getting better.”

But Ellizabeth came to hate going to school and begged her mother to homeschool her.

After Ellizabeth’s death, people have reached out in comfort and support, Coughlin said, and many of them have shared their own tales of being bullied at school and want something to be done.

“I’m ready to be the general of this army,” Coughlin said.

Gazette at a Glance for May 31, 2018

State • 2A

Why the delay on voter ID rulings?

More than a year after hearing arguments, a federal appeals court has yet to rule on a host of Wisconsin voting laws, including aspects of the state’s voter ID statute. The long delay has left some scratching their heads and raised questions about whether the court will act before this year’s elections, including the fast-approaching Aug. 14 primary.

Local • 3A, 6A, 8A

Walworth County crash kills two

A married couple from Elkhorn are dead and two people were flown by helicopter to a trauma center after a car crash in the town of La Grange on Tuesday, according to the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office. Dennis Hinze, 67, and Joy Hinze, 60, were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash on Highway 12/67 just south of Sterlingworth Drive, according to a news release.

Nation/World • 6B

Fed votes to loosen bank regulations

The Federal Reserve Board on Wednesday took the first step toward loosening restrictions on investment trades. The Volcker Rule prohibits banks with federally insured deposits from trading for their own profit rather than on behalf of customers. It also limits ownership of risky investments, such as relationships with hedge funds and private equity funds.