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Is idle GM land a boon or hindrance for economic prospects in Janesville?


As Janesville waits for the privately owned former General Motors site to move into a redevelopment phase, the city has gotten passed over for two massive industrial developments.

That happens. But what’s glaring is those developments have gone to Beloit and Milton—neighboring Rock County cities that have better access to big blocks of land that developers of large-scale industrial and distribution operations want.

The 1-million-square-foot Amazon distribution center that recently opened in Beloit is one of those developments.

Another is Milton’s emerging plan for a giant Clasen Quality Chocolate facility that officials say could one day sprawl over more than 150 acres and surpass 1 million square feet.

Aside from farmland private owners hold on the city’s outskirts, Janesville doesn’t have a chunk of open land anywhere near 160 acres—or even 80 acres, like the parcel the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corp. transferred to a third party to land the Amazon center.

The largest city-owned parcel that’s ready for industrial development in Janesville is a 58-acre certified site on the south side, according to a Gazette analysis of business park properties.

But let’s not forget the 250-acre GM plant site.

The site’s owner, Commercial Development Company, initially trumpeted the 100-year-old industrial brownfield as a prime redevelopment zone with robust railroad and electrical infrastructure.

Yet city officials and commercial real estate brokers say it could be months before Commercial Development explains how it might tackle the next phases of cleanup at the site. One pivotal issue is what the company will do with at least 85 square acres of concrete foundation that remain in the ground.

The elephant in the room—not just for city officials but also for developers, site selection experts or any company seeking to build a large-scale facility—might be this:

In its current state, is the sprawling GM site an asset to Janesville’s economic future or could it be a hindrance if the city markets itself as a place that can take on midsize or big-ticket industrial developments?

Opportunity knocks (or doesn’t)

Gale Price, the city’s economic development director, said people already have asked him if Janesville got passed over for the Clasen project that Milton is working on.

“Somebody asked me the question, ‘Did the candy factory look at us? We’ve got that 250-acre rail site called GM,’” Price said. “I told them that it’s my understanding the candy factory did not look at us. Was the fact that the GM site is an (environmental) brownfield frowned upon by that company or another company? I don’t know.”

Commercial Development does not often publicly discuss its plans for the GM site, but on the surface, 2020 has been a year of relative inactivity.

It’s now been two years since Commercial Development began leveling and scrapping out the former plant. The company has removed all of the more than 2 million square feet of structures from the main plant site, a parcel that comprises about half the property’s 250 acres.

But the main plant site hasn’t reached a stage of cleanup that would allow it to be groomed for industrial reuse.

One local commercial real estate broker said the site is in a holding pattern pending an environmental review—a status that might not change for months.

It’s not clear when Commercial Development will say how it intends to fulfill its earlier promises to move the GM site from brownfield status to marketable industrial development land.

Meanwhile, neighboring cities aren’t waiting around.

Milton officials say the Clasen deal will go through partly because Milton owns industrial land in its business park that’s next to railroad infrastructure. The land also is near large swaths of private land held by owners who are motivated to sell.

The Gazette’s analysis of Janesville business park parcels doesn’t account for privately-owned land that’s tabbed for industrial use or is next to other land that is.

The last time the city itself owned a parcel anywhere near the size of the GM site was before 2015, when the city landed the 1-million-square-foot Dollar General distribution center that sits on about 100 acres south of Highway 11.

Like many Wisconsin municipalities, Janesville can borrow money to buy and annex private land to hold for future development.

Under its own rules and tax-incentive limits allowed under law, a city can transfer land to companies at prices as low as $1 and offer other loans to lure development when it otherwise might not happen.

But that doesn’t mean municipalities will buy big plots of land in hopes a monolithic development will suddenly materialize.

“Look at how long we sat on the site where Dollar General was,” Price said. “We had bought that years ago, thinking we were going to be able to land a Lowe’s project that ended up going into Rockford. It took a long time, years, before we ended up with anything down there.”

For city planners and economic development officials, the uncertainty surrounding the GM site might present a two-part conundrum:

What’s the local opportunity cost of GM remaining a mostly inactive industrial cleanup site? And would the city annexing or buying its own large industrial parcels be a boon or a risk to the city and taxpayers?

Buy it, but will they come?

Price said industrial land acquisition, either by a city or private developers, isn’t as cut and dried as buying or annexing swaths of land and subdividing them for future use.

“Not having a 100-acre site makes it pretty hard for the big monster user to come to Janesville,” Price said. “But you have to be cautious. There’s some inherent risk involved when you’re buying land to build out an industrial park.”

The local and regional market, the suitability and topography of land and the location of the land relative to sewer and water infrastructure, plus the cost to add utilities, are all factors that can work for—or against—the city holding on to large parcels, he said.

Janesville’s land situation might not be that unusual.

Beloit Economic Development Director Andrew Janke said aside from the Amazon development, Beloit doesn’t own a 80- to 100-acre parcel that could fit another similarly sized development.

Janke said it’s increasingly rare for small cities to set parcels aside for developments such as Amazon’s.

The three such developments he has worked on in his career include Amazon and two other distribution projects Beloit competed on but didn’t get: Janesville’s Dollar General distribution center and, a decade earlier, a Lowe’s distribution center that went to Rockford, Illinois.

“Those million-square-footers, they don’t come along very often,” Janke said. “The Amazon project ... they called me because Beloit was the only 80 acres out there anywhere.”

Janke noted that the Amazon parcel was owned not by Beloit, but by the public-private Greater Beloit Economic Development Corp.

Janesville’s cache of development land is limited to a few midsize parcels, the largest of which Price said could accommodate a development of 750,000 square feet or multiple smaller developments.

Janke said the 2,000 new jobs expected at Amazon’s Beloit development are considered by local economic development officials to be a big win for all of Rock County, especially during a dark pandemic year.

A hesitation waltz

One complicating factor in industrial development is private landowners’ or adjacent municipalities’ willingness to see private land annexed and used for industry.

Price said the town of La Prairie holds large parcels of farmland near Janesville’s south-side business parks. But the town has been reluctant to promote development of much of that land.

The city doesn’t own the GM site, which means its control of redevelopment there is limited to zoning rules and enforcement of a city overlay that outlines specific uses allowed in redevelopment.

The reality, Price said, is that the economic future of the city’s south side hinges on the GM site’s redevelopment, either by its current owner or another owner.

The city has made no serious overtures on possible tax incentives to spur projects at the GM site, and officials have said it’s not likely incentive talks will gel until Commercial Development further grooms the site for redevelopment.

City Manager Mark Freitag indicated that the city could have prospects to tack on industrial land on its outskirts.

The advantage to that is that city-owned land can carry enticing perks, including lower cost and a potentially faster track to development than a brownfield property that’s still partly tied up in environmental review.

But Price said right now, city officials must eye potential land acquisitions carefully. The Goliath space at GM is still considered a pivotal piece of real estate, and the city hopes to be a partner in its future.

“We don’t want to undermine CDC’s ability to get the site redeveloped,” he said. “Certainly from their perspective, they’d have a concern about undermining that ability because the reality is, they’re competing against us.”

Republicans condemn 'scheme' to undo election for Trump


Former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who represented Janesville and Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District for 20 years, on Sunday condemned the extraordinary effort of some in his party to overturn the presidential election, joining an outpouring of current and former party officials warning that the effort to sow doubt in Democrat Joe Biden’s win and keep President Donald Trump in office is undermining Americans’ faith in democracy.

Trump has enlisted support from a dozen Republican senators, including Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, and up to 100 House Republicans to challenge the Electoral College vote when Congress convenes in a joint session to confirm President-elect Biden’s 306-232 win.

With Biden set to be inaugurated Jan. 20, Trump is intensifying efforts to prevent the traditional transfer of power, ripping the party apart.

Despite Trump’s claims of voter fraud, state officials have insisted the elections ran smoothly and there was no evidence of fraud or other problems that would change the outcome. The states have certified their results as fair and valid. Of the more than 50 lawsuits the president and his allies have filed challenging election results, nearly all have been dismissed or dropped. He has also lost twice at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ryan said in a statement that “Biden’s victory is entirely legitimate” and that efforts to sow doubt about the election “strike at the foundation of our republic.”

“The 2020 election is over,” said a statement Sunday from a bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Mitt Romney of Utah.

The senators wrote that further attempts to cast doubt on the election are “contrary to the clearly expressed will of the American people and only serve to undermine Americans’ confidence in the already determined election results.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said, “The scheme by members of Congress to reject the certification of the presidential election makes a mockery of our system and who we are as Americans.”

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, warned in a memo to colleagues that objections to the Electoral College results “set an exceptionally dangerous precedent.”

Other prominent former officials also criticized the ongoing attack on election results. In a brief op-ed in The Washington Post, the 10 living former defense secretaries—half of them having served Republican presidents—called on Pentagon officials to carry out the transition to the new administration “fully, cooperatively and transparently.” They also asserted that efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes “would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”

Citing election results, legal challenges, state certifications and the Electoral College vote, the former defense secretaries said that “the time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived.”

The unusual challenge to the presidential election, on a scale unseen since the aftermath of the Civil War, clouded the opening of the new Congress and is set to consume its first days. The House and Senate will meet Wednesday in a joint session to accept the Electoral College vote, a typically routine process that is now expected to be a prolonged fight.

Trump is refusing to concede, and pressure is mounting on Vice President Mike Pence to ensure victory while presiding in what is typically a ceremonial role over the congressional session. Trump is whipping up crowds for a rally in Washington.

The president tweeted Sunday against the election tallies and Republicans not on his side.

Biden’s transition spokesman, Mike Gwin, dismissed the senators’ effort as a “stunt” that won’t change the fact that Biden will be sworn in Jan. 20.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues that while there is “no doubt” of Biden’s victory, their job now “is to convince more of the American people to trust in our democratic system.”

The effort in the Senate was being led by Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Hawley defended his actions in a lengthy email to colleagues, explaining that his Missouri constituents have been “loud and clear” with their belief that Biden’s defeat of Trump was unfair.

“It is my responsibility as a senator to raise their concerns,” Hawley wrote late Saturday.

Hawley plans to object to the state tally from Pennsylvania. But that state’s Republican senator, Pat Toomey, criticized the attack on Pennsylvania’s election system and said the results that named Biden the winner are valid.

Cruz’s coalition of 11 Republican senators vows to reject the Electoral College tallies unless Congress launches a commission to immediately conduct an audit of the election results. They are zeroing in on the states where Trump has raised unfounded claims of voter fraud. Congress is unlikely to agree to their demand.

The group formed with Cruz, which presented no new evidence of election problems, includes Sens. Johnson, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Steve Daines of Montana, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Mike Braun of Indiana. New senators in the group are Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

The convening of the joint session to count the Electoral College votes has faced objections before. In 2017, several House Democrats challenged Trump’s win. Biden, who presided over those proceedings as vice president, swiftly dismissed them to assert Trump’s victory. Rarely have the protests approached this level of intensity.

The moment is a defining one for the Republican Party in a post-Trump era. Both Hawley and Cruz are potential 2024 presidential contenders, cementing their alignment with Trump’s base of supporters. Others are trying to forge a different path for the GOP.

Pence will be carefully watched as he presides over what is expected to be a prolonged showdown, depending on how many challenges are mounted.

The vice president “welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections,” Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said in a statement Saturday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned Republicans off such challenges but said little when asked about it as at the Capitol as the Senate opened Sunday.

“We’ll be dealing with all of that on Wednesday,” he said.

But Republicans simply said they do not plan to join the effort that will fail.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday his colleagues will have an opportunity to make their case, but they must produce evidence and facts. “They have a high bar to clear,” he said.

Congress has been loathe to interfere in the state-run election systems, a longstanding protocol. States choose their own election officials and draft their election laws. During the coronavirus pandemic, many states adapted by allowing mail voting to ease health risks of voting in person. Those changes and others are now being challenged by Trump and his allies.

Trump, the first president to lose a re-election bid in almost 30 years, has attributed his defeat to widespread voter fraud despite the consensus of nonpartisan election officials and even his attorney general that there was none.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the latest challenge from Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and a group of Arizona electors, who filed suit to try to force Pence to step outside mere ceremony and shape the outcome of the vote. The appellate court sided with the federal judge, a Trump appointee, who dismissed the suit.

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Joe Almburg remembered for smile, love of hockey


For the last 30 years, two things were certain to happen most Sunday nights at the Janesville Ice Arena.

First, big Joe Almburg was going to be on the ice looking to score a goal with a wicked slap shot. Second, he was going to do it with a smile.

Those things are no longer certainties. Almburg of Delavan died Dec. 18 after a two-months-long battle with COVID-19. He was 57.

Among the people who knew him best, Almburg’s welcoming smile and love of hockey will continue to be cherished.

Emily Van Der Haegen met Almburg in 2010 through a mutual friend. What started as a strong friendship grew into the love of a lifetime, she said.

“Joe was my very best friend. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, and I’m really going to miss that,” she said.

Almburg had a goofy nature, Van Der Haegen said as she recalled their failed garden attempt last summer and the nights they spent sipping wine and dancing around the fire pit.

One of Almburg’s biggest joys away from the rink was his family, she said. Almburg had two children—Joselyn and Andrew—but he also treated Blaine, Anna and Scotty—Van Der Haegen’s children—as his own. His granddaughter, Cora, also brought him joy.

Almburg grew up in Illinois and moved to Wisconsin to attend UW-Whitewater. He stayed in Wisconsin after graduating and most recently worked as a salesman at Univar Solutions.

He also worked as an auctioneer and was a member of the Delavan Yacht Club, Delavan Hunt Club and Delavan Assembly Park. Whether the activity was golf, snowmobiling, boating, hockey or something else, Almburg was always on the move.

Almburg went golfing the morning of Oct. 11, a Sunday. He ran a high fever Monday and was tested for COVID-19 on Tuesday. The positive result came Thursday.

“Friday I took him in for a chest X-ray just because we couldn’t break the fever, and he was just miserable,” Van Der Haegen said. “I couldn’t go in; I had to wait in the parking lot. He went in on the 16th (of October), and he never came back out.”

Almburg was admitted to Aurora Lakeland Medical Center and was put on a ventilator Oct. 28. Three days later, he was flown to St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, where he was put on an ECMO machine, which pumped and oxygenated blood outside his body so his lungs could recover. But he made no progress, and his organs began to fail.

“We really, really, really thought he’d come out of this. Never did we think it would take him away,” Van Der Haegen said. “I kept telling the doctors, ‘He’s going to be that miracle guy that you didn’t think was going to come through and he did.’ But he didn’t, and it’s so sad to me.”

“He just had a heart of gold,” she said. “He was so much fun, and his laugh and his smile were just so contagious. He would do anything for anyone, always.”

Almburg’s longtime hockey teammates agreed, calling him a gentle giant with an immense passion for the game.

“He was on the go all the time, but hockey was first in everything that he did, except for his family,” Rick Mussey said.

Mussey played twice a week with Almburg for the last 20 years, give or take a few weeks when the league was on break.

Almburg was all set to play in the 50 and older national tournament in Florida this summer with Mussey and others, including Kevin Wellhausen and John MacDougall. Wellhausen has known Almburg since he was 19, and MacDougall met him in college.

“He was a guy that always had a smile on his face. He was happy, enjoyed life. He was just one of those guys everybody liked and everybody wanted to be around,” said MacDougall, who played against Almburg and his talented teams in Janesville in the 1990s.

Wellhausen said he and his brother were playing in a hockey game at the Janesville Ice Arena about 30 years ago when his brother blocked a shot by Almburg, who was on the other team.

His brother returned to the bench with a welt.

“And I ended up telling my brother, I said, ‘That Joe Almburg, we’ve got to get him on our team.’ ... And from the time I was 19 and he was 25, Joe was my right wing for the next 31 years,” Wellhausen said.

When a 34-year-old Wellhausen lost his first wife to cancer 16 years ago, Almburg was the one who got him through it.

“Part of my therapy during that time was going Sunday nights to play hockey, and Joe was a huge part of getting me over that hump in understanding what I went through,” Wellhausen said. “He was the guy that would always make sure you were going to be OK.”

When Wellhausen’s daughter played hockey for the Wisconsin Badgers, Almburg frequently went to watch her.

“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Wellhausen said. “It was never a selfish thing for Joe. Whether it was as a player, as a fan or as a friend, it was always about the other person, and that is to a T who Joe was. He cared more about people around him than he did himself many times.”

Mussey said it will be hard to play without one of his favorite people next to him.

“He was always the guy smiling in the locker room, always the welcoming guy. Always,” Mussey said. “It was hard for some people to see that in him, of course, because they said he’s a bull in a china shop sometimes, and he played hard. ... But he was always so welcoming. And that smile every time you walk in the locker room ... that’s what I’m going to remember the most is his smile.

“That’s definitely gonna leave a hole in my game.”

Obituaries and death notices for Jan. 4, 2021

Arlene M. Cecka

Dorothy V. (Birkholz) Decker

Charles Robert Martin “Chuck” Delaney

Robert G. Egnoski

Frank J. Ehrenberg

Daniel Finnane III

Mary Jo Fox

Donald Kenneth Guse

Irene Halverson

Michael Hebble

William F. Kepler

Richard T. Kinsley Sr.

Rosemary Martin

Nils E. Nelson

Howard K. Powell

James L. Reed

Michael J. Roherty

Margaret Schulz

Stephen Paul Semrow

Edward J. “Ed” Vopelak

Nell Ward

Keith A. Zimmerman

Paul Ryan