A1 A1

Carter Schneider stands in the batting cage during a practice for the Janesville Express on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, at Riverside Park in Janesville.


Government
top story
Blackhawk Community Credit Union plans to sell former bank as city calls for repairs

JANESVILLE

Blackhawk Community Credit Union leaders are in talks with a developer to buy the stripped and gutted Chase Bank downtown this summer.

Meanwhile, the city has asked the credit union to make repairs to bring the building up to code by Aug 24.

The credit union in September debuted plans to redevelop the former bank into a Legacy Center honoring the memory of workers at the former General Motors Assembly Plant. Plans included a small grocery store and coffee shop on site.

Last month, the credit union announced it was dropping real estate development plans, including the Legacy Center, to focus on its core mission.

The shift in plans left the 107-year old building stripped and gutted along one of the main stretches of the city’s downtown.

In a May 22 letter to credit union COO Caroline Redmann, city Building Director Tom Clippert said the city found several building violations at the site during a recent inspection.

“... (T)he current condition of building is not safe and is now a hazard to the community,” Clippert wrote in the letter.

The following repairs need to be made to the building, according to the letter:

  • Exterior walls need a weather-resistant envelope to prevent accumulation of water within the wall.
  • Exterior of the building needs to be maintained in good repair, structurally sound and sanitary.
  • Exterior walls should be free of holes, breaks and loose or rotting materials.
  • Exterior walls need to be weatherproofed and surface coated to prevent deterioration.
  • Every window, skylight, door and frame needs to be in sound condition, good repair and weather tight.

Clippert in an email to The Gazette said he has not seen the credit union pursue any repairs as of Tuesday afternoon.

Anthony Wahl 

Blackhawk Community Credit Union hopes to sell the downtown Janesville building it once intended to remodel into a Legacy Center. Plans were halted after the exterior was stripped and the interior gutted.

Credit union spokeswoman CeeCee Philipps said the credit union is in talks with a developer who plans to buy the property as is this summer.

Philipps declined to share the name of the developer and said she was not sure of all the developer’s plans, but the developer’s mission to better the community aligns with the credit union’s mission, she said.

The credit union has a strong track record of supporting the city, Philipps said.

If plans with the developer fall through, the credit union would work with the city to address violations, Philipps said.

City council member Jim Farrell during a June 8 meeting asked city officials what could be done to compel the credit union to bring the building to a “presentable” state, saying the state of the building is “not a plus for downtown.”

Anthony Wahl 

Blackhawk Community Credit Union hopes to sell the downtown Janesville building it once intended to remodel into a Legacy Center. The city wants the building repaired by Aug. 24.

City Manager Mark Freitag said the building division has taken enforcement actions and the city would work with the credit union to bring the building into compliance.

Clippert said a raze-or-repair order would be a last resort if modifications were not made.

Philipps said she believes the community understands why the credit union shifted its focus away from real estate to focus on its members.

The credit union still plans to create a Legacy Center but a location for the center has not been determined, Philipps said.

Credit union officials are gathering artifacts and recording stories from people about the GM plant for the future center, Philipps said.

There is no timeline for when the center might be ready, but the credit union is exploring other building options, Philipps said.


Local
top story
Credit union sells former Town and Country, demolition expected

JANESVILLE

The decrepit former Town and Country restaurant in downtown Janesville has changed hands again, this time to a new group of owners who plan to demolish and clear the property for “mixed use” redevelopment.

Janesville resident Oakleigh Ryan, who recently bought the five-storefront set of buildings at 14-24 S. River St., on Wednesday confirmed that she and a “small group” of silent partners now own the property. They plan to demolish the ailing buildings, which have been under city raze-or-repair orders since late 2018.

State Department of Revenue real estate transfer records show owner Blackhawk Community Credit Union on May 29 sold the buildings to real estate holding partnership, Rock Renaissance Partnership LLC., for $165,000. The state records list Ryan as the buyer.

The circa-1890s storefronts are near the epicenter of recent public and private revitalization along the downtown’s riverfront, but the former Town and Country has been mostly vacant and increasingly in disrepair since 2014.

Ryan has been a vocal proponent of downtown revitalization and is on the executive committee of ARISEnow, a group that is leading private-sector revitalization along the riverfront, including the ARISE Town Square, which is across the street from the former Town and Country.

Ryan said her group is pursuing redevelopment options at the site and a “preliminary market analysis” shows the downtown could support a new “mixed use” development.

She said her group bought the former Town and Country to ensure the parcels would be positioned to become part of the riverfront revitalization.

“We wanted to make sure that property was in the control of folks who really had focus on the downtown’s revitalization and everything that has gone into it,” Ryan said.

“We have to be really strategic about downtown, and we have been. After investing all this money in the redevelopment of our town square, people want to make sure that our key places are in the right hands and cared for with the right interest. We’ve got to get it right.”

It’s the fourth time since 2014 the building has changed hands.

Blackhawk’s former CEO, Sherri Stumpf, said last fall the property was slated for demolition and the credit union was working to find a developer who might buy the property for possible commercial or residential redevelopment.

In May, City Manager Mark Freitag told The Gazette he had been told the property was close to selling. He said it was likely the property would be demolished sometime in July.

Ryan said that part of her group’s due diligence in buying the property was that it formed a “safe and thoughtful demolition plan.”

“That was a key requirement from the city,” she said.

The property has languished for years, gutted inside and in disrepair outside and inside. The city in 2014 had sought to buy the former restaurant building, likely to tear it down to create more downtown parking.

But Janesville couple Travis and Jennifer O’Connell outbid the city and bought the property.

The O’Connells gutted much of the first floors in 2015 and planned to put a new restaurant in part of the building.

Those plans stalled and ultimately fell through. The city in 2018 placed raze-or-repair orders on the property. City building officials said the property, which had been stuck in disarray and saddled with unfinished interior construction for three years, was structurally deficient.

In 2019, Blackhawk Community Credit Union bought the property in lieu of foreclosure after a deal by the O’Connells to sell the property to a California developer fell through.

Stumpf waffled last year on whether the building could be saved, but the credit union’s board ultimately decided the building had enough structural problems that it should be razed.

Stumpf at the time said demolition could pave the way for the property to become part of an ongoing revival along River Street—including the credit union’s plans to develop the Legacy Center, a local General Motors memorabilia museum planned inside the former First National Bank.

But in March, the credit union abruptly announced it was suspending the Legacy Center project. At that time, the credit union also signaled it was selling off the former Town and Country.

Demolition seemed close at hand last fall, when Stumpf said she’d allowed relatives of the former Town and Country’s operators to pay a final visit in the building for posterity.

Stumpf last fall allowed the Janesville Fire Department to use the inside of the doomed building for tactical training.

Stumpf at the time said demolition was imminent. But this spring, the building was still standing, and Stumpf had departed as the credit union’s CEO—a leadership change the credit union has repeatedly declined to publicly explain.


Education
top story
Janesville School District anticipates return to traditional grading this fall

JANESVILLE

The Janesville School District tentatively plans to return to traditional grading this fall regardless of whether students learn in classrooms or at home.

The district resorted to pass/fail grading in spring after coronavirus restrictions required schools to teach students virtually. District leaders, administrators and teachers decided on the change.

“Do I think we’re going to stick with pass/fail? Probably not,” Superintendent Steve Pophal said, “… because we’re not rookies anymore at virtual learning. We learned a lot the last three months.”

A final decision on fall grading likely will come later this summer when the district has a better idea of what school will look like and state and local health officials offer more guidance, Pophal said Wednesday.

The traditional grading model didn’t make sense for the virtual spring, he said.

“The reality is no course was delivered in full,” he said. “If we’re going to give a grade, whatever that grade might be, what are we actually giving that grade for? Because you didn’t actually finish geometry, you didn’t actually do the whole English 11 course. Because under the circumstances, it was impossible to do that.”

Every student received an electronic device in spring, but resources such as Wi-Fi, high-speed internet and parental help weren’t available to all students and put some at a disadvantage, Pophal said.

Teachers and students also weren’t used to a virtual learning environment, so the pass/fail system allowed for a learning curve, he said.

Teachers continue to receive professional development in both virtual and blended teaching, and students understand better how virtual learning works and have experience with online learning platforms.

“We’ve learned, and so our ability to do grading differently and to be more sophisticated with our grading than pass/fail, which is not as sophisticated, is in a different place,” Pophal said.

Grade-point averages were frozen for the spring semester, meaning high school seniors’ GPAs were based on seven semesters instead of eight.

Julie Richardson’s son, Joe, is a high school student who is beginning to look at colleges. Richardson told the school board she worries that the pass/fail grading system will hurt her son on his college applications.

“The decision to go with only pass/fail lowered the educational bar for the whole district,” she said at the board’s June 9 meeting.

Richardson said she wishes district officials had allowed students to choose between grades and a pass/fail system for the spring semester. That would have been fairer to those who work hard for their grades, she said.

“We all know that GPA does matter for college admissions,” Richardson said. “Losing a semester toward a cumulative GPA is putting my son and the Class of ’21 and ’22 at risk and at a disadvantage versus students at other schools, where they were able to improve their GPA this semester.”

Pophal said Wednesday that higher-education officials are discussing how to handle college applications for those who got pass/fail marks in spring. He said colleges understand how unusual the semester was.

“We’re in a really unusual circumstance, and what I really wanted to make sure we stayed focused on was maximizing the learning for kids,” Pophal said.

The district will be better equipped for educational changes moving forward, he noted.

“The (pass/fail) system that we used this spring was necessitated by the unusual circumstances, and it was absolutely the right thing to do to do no harm to all kids,” Pophal said. “Moving forward to the fall, we’re going to be re-evaluating what fall looks like and adjusting accordingly.”


Politics
AP
Wisconsin panel gives final approval on absentee ballots

MADISON

The Wisconsin Elections Commission gave final approval Wednesday to a mailing that will put absentee ballot application forms in the hands of 2.7 million registered voters ahead of the November presidential election.

The commission, split evenly among Republicans and Democrats, previously voted unanimously in favor of sending the mailing to about 80% of registered voters. But it didn’t give final approval to the letter that will accompany it until Wednesday. The mailing is in anticipation of a surge of absentee voting in the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Commissioner Bob Spindell, a Republican, said mailing the absentee ballot applications was “good for both the Republicans and the Democrats.” The commission voted unanimously to approve the letter after making several technical changes to the wording.

The Wisconsin mailing, to be sent by Sept. 1, will include the absentee ballot application form, not actual ballots. To receive a ballot, the voter must return the completed form with a copy of their photo ID.

The letter approved Wednesday contains information on how to request a ballot online, legal requirements for absentee voting, how to use the MyVote Wisconsin website and in-person voting options.

Absentee voting surged in Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary and spring election, with nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots cast, or 74% of the total. State officials estimate that as many as 1.8 million voters could request absentee ballots for the November election, further straining state and local election officials.

The state has 3.4 million registered voters. About 528,000 have already requested absentees, and the state estimates about 158,000 have moved since they last voted, leaving about 2.7 million people to be mailed absentee applications.

The $2.2 million cost of the mailing will be paid for with a portion of Wisconsin’s $7.3 million in federal funding to help with elections because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats in Wisconsin and nationally have advocated for more mail-in voting as a way to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 from voting in person. Republicans have opposed expanding mail-in voting.

President Donald Trump, who won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, threatened to pull funding from states that have moved aggressively to get absentee ballots to all voters. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting leads to “total election fraud.” His GOP allies, meanwhile, have fought changes to voting in court and opposed funding to expand mail-in voting in Congress.

Republican Wisconsin state Rep. Rick Gundrum, of Slinger, circulated a letter to lawmakers Tuesday urging the commission not to send the ballot application forms to voters who did not request it. But the commission did not discuss that letter.

The elections commission also rejected a request to enact a rule prohibiting the practice of ballot harvesting. That is the process by which outside groups, typically partisan, help to send or return large numbers of absentee ballots.

Twenty-seven states allow voters to designate someone else to return their ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wisconsin is one of 13 states that is silent on the issue, according to NCSL.

The Legislature last year refused to specifically outlaw ballot harvesting in state law. The conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a petition with the elections commission earlier this month asking it to adopt rules stating that only the voter can request an absentee ballot and place it in mail.

Elections commission staff said last year that it was not aware of any efforts in Wisconsin by a political campaign or organization to systematically collect absentee ballots.

The commission deadlocked 3-3 on a motion to begin drafting the regulations WILL requested. A tie vote means a motion fails. All three Republicans on the commission voted to start writing the rules; the three Democratic commissioners voted against.

The vote clears the way for WILL to file a lawsuit to force the commission to draft such language.


Obituaries and death notices for June 18, 2020

Nico F. Hartzheim

Dennis James Maynard

Gerald R. Palmer

Donald Joseph Phelps

Esther Sigmund