A group trying to raise money for a proposed indoor sports complex hopes federal COVID-19 relief dollars President Joe Biden approved Thursday could help its effort to bring a $33 million facility to Janesville.
Members of the Friends of the Indoor Sports Complex aim to encourage local leaders to dedicate relief funding to the sports complex, which will have long-term economic benefits for industries affected by the coronavirus pandemic, said Bill McCoshen, president of the Janesville Jets and a private fundraising organizer.
The group will meet today for the first time in a year. Members will begin examining the community’s economic landscape to see how to move forward, said Christine Rebout, executive director of the Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Estimates from the National Association of Counties show Rock County could receive $31.7 million from State and Local Coronavirus Fiscal Recovery Funds as part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Funding will be funneled directly to counties. The first half will be distributed in the next 60 days, and the other half will be sent out one year later, according to the association.
That money is separate from funding being sent to individuals, schools and businesses, McCoshen said.
Municipalities will receive allocations from the state, McCoshen said, which could mean potentially more money for the sports complex if Janesville receives sufficient relief funding.
In an email to The Gazette, County Administrator Josh Smith said he did not know yet if the sports complex could benefit from the county’s allocation.
“I would have to review the final language of the Act more carefully and possibly wait for further guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department to know where this (or what kinds of expenses more generally) might qualify for use of these funds,” Smith said.
The proposed sports complex at the former Sears building in Uptown Janesville would cost an estimated $33 million. It would include:
The complex has been pitched as a private-public partnership, but neither side has been able to commit to an exact contribution yet.
City officials have said they would have to borrow to provide public funding, which ultimately would be paid for by taxpayers.
Federal relief funding could help ease that burden on taxpayers, McCoshen said.
City officials already are struggling with how to handle the city’s annual debt, which has sparked conversations about creating a transportation utility to pay for road maintenance.
City council members have suggested lowering the maximum amount of debt the city could issue to offset a transportation utility. That could affect borrowing for other capital projects, such as the sports complex.
McCoshen and Rebout said they haven’t considered how a transportation utility could affect the sports complex. Progress on the proposal has been temporarily halted but could pick up in spring after a new council is elected.
McCoshen said he hopes the Friends group will come up with funding to begin designing the sports complex this year.
After a year of restrictions caused by the pandemic, people are eager to start traveling and socializing. That could bode well for a strong rebound in hospitality and tourism, Rebout said.
Janesville has seen some of that play out. Hotel occupancy in January 2021 was 5% higher than in January 2020, before the pandemic even started, she said.
But competition for tourism dollars is strong, and the community must work on attracting people to Janesville, Rebout said.
The indoor sports complex would be a 50-plus-years investment for the community and its hospitality industry, said Mason Lyttle, vice president of the Jets.
That’s why the group thinks it would be appropriate to use federal aid.
“This is not one-time money,” McCoshen said. “We will have return on investment for a generation.”
It also would create jobs, Rebout said.
”Regardless of whether you use this or not, it is going to benefit your life,” Lyttle said.
No donors have officially committed to the project, McCoshen said. The Friends group has a list of potential donors, and organizers will reach out to them first before branching out, McCoshen said.
Rebout, McCoshen and Lyttle said they think the indoor sports complex is feasible and still has community support.
Size, scope and location are all still on the table and could be adjusted to enhance overall feasibility, McCoshen said.
“Last call!” will be shouted out to customers near closing time Saturday, just as it has at Legends Tavern for nearly 37 years.
But when co-owner Tim Millis turns up the lights and does it Saturday, “last call” will mean much more than it has the previous 13,000-plus times it has been yelled, advising patrons they have 30 minutes to head out the door.
On Saturday, it will be the final “last call” for the bar that is an institution in downtown Janesville.
Millis and co-owner Dave Harrison will close the front door for the final time Saturday evening. The business partners decided to sell the tavern to Janesville native Greg Hughes, who plans to renovate the building at 11 N. Main St. into a high-end Italian wine bar.
Genisa—named in honor of Hughes’ mother—has a planned opening of May 15, which would have been Genisa Hughes’ 87th birthday.
The “in with the new” means “out with the old.” While Millis and Harrison are looking forward to retirement, they both will miss their regulars and the good times they brought.
The regulars are going to miss coming to their bar—whether it was to down a few on Christmas Eve, cheer on the Packers during chilly Sunday afternoons or just to see friends.
Thousands of people have walked through the narrow doorway into Legends. Just take a look at the Facebook page “Why We Love Legends” to get an idea how many people have enjoyed 11 N. Main St.
The postings include generations of families.
“A lot of them are in their 30s now,” Millis—known as “Milly”—said of the sons and daughters of his original customers. “As long as their kids don’t start coming in. But I don’t think we have to worry about that now.”
The history of Legends began in 1980 and involved several other Janesville bars and Bruce Monson and Kevin Monson. They hired Millis, who was living in Whitewater, to work at the Bear Trap Saloon, which was located down the block from the current Legends.
The Monsons have owned several downtown bars and buildings over the years. Bruce bought The Office bar and wanted to switch the liquor license to the building at 11 N. Main St., which was an insurance office. Bruce asked Millis to go in with him.
And the Legends name?
“Johnny Badertscher owned Sporty’s up the street,” Millis said. “When I was working at the Bear Trap, he always called me “The Legend.” We knocked around several names before we said, ‘How about just Legends?’”
A downtown institution was born.
“We gutted it and started from scratch,” Millis said of the former insurance building. “We opened on April 1, 1984, and have been here ever since.”
Harrison got into the business as a part-time bartender. He spent summers working as a forest firefighter on the West Coast and bartended at Legends during the winter starting in 1985.
Millis bought Monson out in 1992.
“In the late ’90s, I was starting to think I could use somebody in here so I don’t have to be here all the time and take a load off,” Millis said. “I brought Dave in in 1999.”
So Harrison began “putting out fires” year-round.
“It was easier out West,” he said, laughing.
The relationships and camaraderie the bar created greatly outnumbered the “fires.”
“You can’t put a number on it,” Millis said about the friendships he has made. “It’s the people that have kept this place open. The employees and the customers.”
One of those customers holds a special place in Millis’ heart. He met his wife, Jodi, at Legends in 1985. They married in 1997.
Millis and Harrison rarely worked behind the bar the past five years. They credit their staff for keeping it going.
“It’s the staff that keeps the customers coming in,” Millis said. “Without them, there is no way we’d be here right now.”
Joy Williams cleaned the bar every day for 35 years until she retired two years ago.
That left Lindsey Arneson as the veteran of the staff. She answered a Legends newspaper ad for bartenders nearly 17 years ago. For the past four years, she has worked strictly the opening shift from 3 to 8 p.m. four or five days a week.
“It took me a while to accept the fact that we were closing,” she said in the midst of a full bar at 4 p.m. Tuesday. “There are tons and tons of memories. It’s a family atmosphere down here, and that is why we stick around.
“I’ve been crying a lot lately,” she said a bit later. “I’m not going to lie.”
Millis is 66 years old. Harrison is 59. Until the pandemic forced the bar to close for 76 days last spring, the two never thought about selling.
Hughes, who is the main owner of Janesville bars Gameday, Bazinga, and Barkley’s Burgers, Brews and Dawgs, first envisioned Genisa when he saw the back of Legends from across the Rock River last summer. He approached Millis, whom he has known for years, about the possibility of buying the building.
Millis could not turn down the chance to sell.
“It was all in timing for me,” he said. “I just turned 66. I started at the Bear Trap when I was 25. I started this place up when I was 29.
“It was like, when will this opportunity ever come knocking again?”
Hughes realizes the impact the closing will have on patrons.
“Tim is the ultimate Janesville legend and someone anyone would be proud to call a friend,” Hughes said. “It’s impossible to find someone who knows him that doesn’t like him and respect him.
“Janesville owes him a big thank you.”
When the building is turned over to Hughes on April 2, Millis and Harrison are going to begin their post-Legends lives.
Millis is going to enjoy life with Jodi—who retires from her job as a purchasing manager for Rock County on April 1—at their Mineral Point Avenue home.
“I’m not going to be looking for a job,” Millis said.
Harrison, an outdoorsman through and through, has no set plans.
“I’m going to get in a boat and fish for the next two months and contemplate life,” he said. “I’m going to take the next year off. I have a lot to do at home.”
But he will miss the people.
“Everyone who walked through that door made Legends Legends,” Harrison said. “Good, bad or indifferent.”
And now Legends’ long run is down to the last two days. Saturday will be tough for both owners, but especially for “The Legend.”
“It’s going to be an emotional day,” Millis said of the finale. “This has been like home for a lot of people, and it still is for a lot of people.
“You don’t know how many times I’ve felt guilty. This is a lot of people’s gathering spots, including ourselves. So how do we stay in touch? How do we maintain this relationship with everybody when the nucleus is gone?
“I tell you, it’s been wearing on me a little bit.”
On Saturday, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of experiences recounted of the fun times, the Christmas Eves, the Packers games at “Little Lambeau” and other exploits.
Stories of Steve Sullivan will be shared, too. “Sully” was a longtime regular who painted the huge Legends sign on the interior brick wall with Eric Whipple. “Sully” died Feb. 15 at age 56.
His obituary stated: “If Legends was likened to Cheers, Steve “Sully” was its Norm … everyone knew his name.”
Millis misses Sully. And he will miss all the customers who made the bar what it has been for nearly 37 years. Arneson—who plans to join the Genisa staff—will be there at the final closing time, along with many other past and current bartenders.
There will be plenty of toasts to the past and future.
“We like to think of this place as anybody, in any walk of life, they felt comfortable coming in here,” Millis said.
So when the scheduled 8 p.m. closing time rolls around Saturday—neither Millis nor Harrison are 2:30 a.m. people anymore—Millis knows it will be difficult to get up and make that final “last call.”
“If I can even talk,” he said. “If I’m not crying my eyes out.”
Odds are he won’t be the only one.
Martha E. Bendig
Catherine “Kay” Burdick
James W. Gammons
Russell Clarence Hodge
Wanda M. Hunt
Victoria A. Lavin
Roger G. Millard Sr.
Bonnie (Loveland) Schumacher
Garrett Tyler Siefert
Stephen A. “Steve” Sippy
Sharon Ann Stuckart
Dr. Robert George Yahr
TOWN OF LA GRANGE
In the last half of the 17th century, an acorn sprouted and stood its ground among the ponds and glacial hills of what is known today as the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
Century after century, the slow-growing oak with a deep root system survived contrary winds, lightning and the ax.
John Zinzow came upon the old matriarch of the woods while hiking and running along the Nordic Trail in the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine a decade ago.
A thick growth of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle surrounded the tree’s huge trunk and hid its grandeur.
When Zinzow took a closer look, he could see the giant white oak’s breathtaking branches stretching higher and higher in a billowing canopy.
Zinzow and a friend used a chainsaw to clear away the smothering brush and noticed other stout white oaks, likely descendants of the enduring mother tree.
In September, Zinzow entered the tree in a competition for the oldest oak in Walworth County, sponsored by the Geneva Lake Conservancy.
He estimated the oak’s age at a stunning 350 years.
Zinzow measured the tree’s circumference at 12 feet and calculated its diameter at almost 46 inches.
He then determined its age using a table that Marlin Bowles of the Morton Arboretum created to help people estimate the age of various trees based on the tree’s diameter at breast height.
So far, the tree is the oldest oak identified in the third year of the conservancy’s contest to raise awareness about the county’s shrinking oak population.
About six months ago, Zinzow used a handsaw to trim the invasive brush that once again crowded the impressive oak.
As he worked, people stopped to look.
“I shared with them how the oak is the dominant tree in the area,” Zinzow said. “If you look closely at nearby trees, they have the same look. I refer to them as oak families. You will see evidence of families deep in the brush.”
Zinzow and his wife, Holly Neault, live only minutes from the trees.
“We feel very fortunate,” he said.
Working with the state Department of Natural Resources, the Geneva Lake Conservancy and others, Zinzow wants to cut away invasive brush among the family of trees so people can appreciate the 350-year-old oak and others that have stood for centuries.
Zinzow has a passion for preserving and restoring the Kettle Moraine with its abundant and ecologically intertwined ecosystems.
“There are all these little habitats networked together,” he said.
The matriarch tree is part of an oak savannah, an extremely rare and threatened plant community that the Geneva Lake Conservancy wants to preserve.
Prior to European settlement, oak savannas were dominant features on the Wisconsin landscape. Now, less than 0.01% of the original 5.5 million acres remain, according to the DNR.
Clearing and plowing, overgrazing, and invasive shrubs and trees are main reasons for the dramatic decline.
In Walworth County, less than 17% of the oak forests and savannas that once covered the landscape remain, according to a study by the Morton Arboretum/Chicago Wilderness Oak Recovery Program.
The remaining trees are threatened by development, disease and inability to regenerate because of lawns and invasive species.
“A lot of people don’t see the importance of an oak tree,” said Kiera Theys, land protection manager with the Geneva Lake Conservancy.
She added that oaks provide habitat and food for hundreds of species of plants and animals.
In addition to finding the oldest tree, the conservancy is hosting its oak tree competition to locate the most beautiful and most storied oaks in Walworth County. The deadline is Oct. 1.
The effort is part of the conservancy’s Oak Recovery Program, funded by the Griffith Family Foundation, to boost the county’s oak population.
“We are hoping that getting the word out in this time of COVID will bring more people outdoors to search for the best oaks,” Theys said. “We have some really great stories from people who enjoy the beauty of their trees.”
The Oak Recovery Program includes an annual oak tree sale open to county residents in late summer and early fall.
Old oaks have aged out and died, so it is important to plant more for future generations, Theys said.
The conservancy also has worked with the Walworth County Public Works Department in planting an oak savanna at White River County Park outside Lake Geneva.
“We are really trying to focus our efforts on the importance of oaks and native plants,” Theys said. “We are trying to lead the way for others to take action.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux @gazettextra.com.