After months of uncertainty, the former First National Bank building in downtown Janesville is in new hands.
Blackhawk Community Credit Union intends to sell the circa-1913 bank to the Forward Janesville Forward Foundation, the two groups announced late Thursday.
The sale of the property at 100 W. Milwaukee St. is pending and likely will close today, both parties said.
The sale hits a reset button on the former bank after the credit union abandoned renovations intended to convert the building to the Legacy Center, a museum to honor local General Motors workers. The credit union shelved work on the property this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Both the credit union and the Forward Foundation said sale of the bank building signals the property will remain standing. The Forward Foundation said it considers the historic property a linchpin in ongoing revitalization in the heart of downtown.
“This property is in a very strategic location and is important for the implementation of the ARISE (riverfront revitalization) plan,” John Beckord, Forward Janesville president, said in a statement. “The bank building on the corner is historically significant, and we feel strongly it should be preserved.”
Tim Lindau, Forward Janesville board chairman and a director on the Forward Foundation board, said the Forward Foundation, Forward Janesville’s charitable arm, believes the building could be preserved for myriad potential reuses.
“The beauty is there’s all sorts of dreams and visions,” Lindau said. “You know, the reality is there are numerous uses downtown that the ARISE plan has identified, whether it’s retail, hospitality, multifamily (housing).”
He said the foundation hasn’t set its sights on one specific concept.
The nonprofit foundation is backed by local philanthropic funding. While it does not typically operate as a real estate holding company or property developer, Lindau said “key” stakeholders who have supplied funding to the foundation have endorsed the purchase of the former bank.
According to a release, the Forward Foundation is seeking partners to develop the property “for a use that is consistent with the ARISE plan.”
“What we wanted to ensure is that caretakers of (private revitalization effort) ARISEnow, along with our partners at the city of Janesville, we would be able to ensure that this important asset ends up with the right project being done on it,” Lindau said.
The credit union earlier this year said it was shifting focus toward banking operations and away from real estate development. BHCCU earlier sold the former Town and Country restaurant property on South River Street, a block south of the First National.
The credit union has been working under city orders to shore up areas of the bank building left open to the elements after renovations halted earlier this year.
A group of local investors demolished the decrepit Town and Country this summer and cleared the property, satisfying a raze or repair order the city had placed on the property. One of the investors in that property said they picture commercial or mixed-use redevelopment there.
The former Town and Country and the former First National Bank are on the corridor that feeds into the city’s newer ARISE Town Square, a public park space along South River Street that the city and private investors have sunk millions into to create a centerpiece for downtown revival.
BHCCU said in a statement Thursday that it “will continue to search for the right location to house the Legacy Center.”
Lindau said there are no plans to demolish the former First National. Some terms of the sale hinge on the Forward Foundation reaching agreements with the city on repairs in the near term to shore up the building.
Beckord said the city has been “patient” through the sale of the property, and Lindau said based on talks with the city’s building department, he believes the city will be cooperative with Forward Foundation’s plans to restore the building to meet code requirements.
BHCCU interim CEO Lisa Palma in a statement said, “... the preservation and utilization of the (First National) building as a catalyst in revitalizing downtown Janesville is very important to BHCCU, and the sale of this building supports that effort in the community.”
Kwik Trip is ready to submit plans to the city on what an official with the company said would be the largest Kwik Trip store to date.
The proposed Kwik Trip store, gas station and car wash at the former Maurer’s Market at 2822 E. Milwaukee St., would be larger than any of the chain’s other stores because of the addition of a liquor store.
Dax Connely, real estate manager for Kwik Trip, said the city’s ordinance dictating a separate entrance for liquor sections at grocery and convenience stores prompted the size, which will match only with another Kwik Trip to be built on Humes Road next year.
Details apparently haven’t been released publicly, but Kwik Trip is proposing a new gas station and grocery store at the site of the Maurer's Market grocery store on the Janesville’s east side.
Connely and Kwik Trip development coordinator Seth Waddell held a meeting Thursday night with neighbors of the proposed store to discuss concerns and answer questions.
The convenience store would be 8,000 square feet, about the size of other new “generation three” stores, but will also feature a 3,000-square-foot liquor store, making it larger than other stores that sell liquor alongside other convenience items, Connely said.
The 24-hour store would feature 24 fueling stations, 66 parking stalls and a car wash.
Community concerns focused largely on traffic. Neighbors wondered if any changes would be made on nearby roads and voiced concerns about more people driving too quickly down Milwaukee Street.
A traffic study was conducted in April, paid for by Kwik Trip, and found no changes would be needed to accommodate traffic. The study used 2019 traffic data because the state in April was under a safer-at-home order and there was less traffic than normal, Connely said.
One man, who indicated he worked at a nearby business, said Kwik Trip should have studied the economic impact on the neighborhood before making plans, citing concerns for nearby gas stations, liquor stores and car washes.
Connely said Kwik Trip wants to provide a grocery store for a neighborhood that is in need of one after the closure of Maurer’s Market, not put others out of business.
Kwik Trip’s generation three stores focus more on grocery and ready-made food items than the average convenience store, Connely said.
A new Kwik Trip planned on Humes Road will also be a generation three store.
If a development plan goes forward, a new Kwik Trip gas station/convenience store on Janesville’s northeast side will be just a "Kwik" jaunt across a parking lot from another Kwik Trip.
Connely said he planned to submit final plans to the city after Thursday’s meeting and hopes the project will get a first reading at the city’s first plan commission meeting in October.
If that happens, the plan commission will likely vote on a conditional-use permit for the project Oct. 19. Members of the public will have a chance to speak at a public hearing Oct. 19.
The city council will not need to approve the conditional-use permit.
Kwik Trip will also have to submit an application for a class A liquor license, which will be vetted by the alcohol licensing advisory committee and city council.
Connely said Kwik Trip hopes to build the new store by the end of 2021.
Gary A. Anderson
Lyle C. Dallman
Jeanene “Nena” (Meyer) Lewis
Elaine C. Schumacher
Kathleen M. Weyrough
Bradley A. Whitford
UW-Whitewater Chancellor Dwight Watson is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into an unspecified complaint, Interim UW System President Tommy Thompson said in a statement Thursday.
The brief statement says the leave is effective Thursday. Interim Provost Greg Cook will take over leading the university “until the complaint is resolved,” Thompson wrote.
“We will have no further comment on this personnel matter at this time,” the statement reads.
Thursday’s news comes just one day after the start of classes amid the coronavirus pandemic. UW-W, like other campuses across the state and country, is navigating the monumental task of trying to have students on campus while attempting to minimize virus risk and exposure.
The UW System has not made it clear when a complaint was made, what the investigation is focused on, or how it might pertain to Watson.
As Chancellor, Watson was being paid $240,000 when he was hired last year, according to university records.
While some other college campuses in the U.S. have opened and reversed course because of the coronavirus, Interim UW System President Tommy Thompson said Monday he feels “very strongly that we should open up.”
The holder of the top post at UW-W has been under investigation in recent years before Watson, as well.
Investigators looked into Watson’s predecessor, Beverly Kopper, for her handling of sexual harassment claims made against her husband, Alan “Pete” Hill.
Those investigators found no direct evidence she knew of Hill’s “pervasive and well-known” sexual harassment (harassment that he has denied doing), but they also reported that it was “at best” a “blindspot” for her.
Investigators found no direct evidence that former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper knew about her husband’s “pervasive and well-known” sexual harassment, but they added it was “at best” a “blindspot” for her.
Whitewater City Council President Lynn Binnie said in an email Thursday that the timing of losing Watson for at least some time and the departure of Grace Crickette, the vice chancellor for administrative affairs who is taking a job at UW-Eau Claire, “seems very inopportune.”
“I feel sure that the news that the chancellor is on administrative leave came as a jolt to many in our community,” Binnie said. “This is obviously a very challenging time for the university in many ways.”
UW-Whitewater junior McKinley Palmer was at a loss Thursday morning over Watson’s sudden move to paid leave.
He said he was still trying to compute Thompson’s short statement, particularly the words “investigation” and “complaint.”
Palmer, who lives on campus, just started attending fall semester classes this week. Palmer also just wrapped up a stint on the Whitewater City Council. He stepped down from the council after moving out of the district he’d represented.
Tuesday was Palmer’s final city council meeting. At that meeting, he and the council spoke with Watson about the topic of possible fines for students holding large house parties during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were discussing outdoor parties and how we can try to maintain social distancing and keep people safe. So this (Watson) news is a complete shock,” Palmer said.
He said he was on the student committee who helped select Watson as a new chancellor. He said as of Thursday morning he had not heard any hint of why Watson was placed on leave.
“It’s unfortunate, but, you know, we are in a country where we believe that you’re innocent until proven guilty. So, hopefully, there’s nothing backing up allegations or whatever have been put against him. He seems like a really good man. He’s done good things for the university,” Palmer said.
He said it’s “troubling” that another top university leader is under the microscope after the upheaval that came during former Chancellor Kopper’s resignation at the end of 2018.
“You always need a top leader,” Palmer said. “This would be very unfortunate for Whitewater when you look at the facts of previous history.”
Kopper resigned from the chancellor position Dec. 31, 2018, which was about six months after former UW System President Ray Cross banned her husband from campus.
Kopper officially retired from UW-W on Jan. 5, 2020, after never going through with plans to teach psychology that previous fall semester.
For the first eight months of her paid leave after stepping down as chancellor, she still collected her chancellor’s salary. Then she spent most of the fall 2019 semester on paid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
And the chancellor before Kopper, Richard Telfer, is still involved in a 4-year-old wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former wrestling coach Tim Fader.
Fader has said he was forced out of his job for reporting a 2014 alleged sexual assault by a wrestling recruit to police before notifying university officials.
Telfer retired as chancellor in 2015.
Palmer said in that the first few days of classes, he’s felt an already tense vibe around campus and in class. He called the atmosphere “very stressful,” a pervasive feeling among students that he said stems from uncertainty over starting a semester under the cloud of an ongoing pandemic.
“You’re back in class, listening to a teacher lecturing through a mask. I understand the safety ideal, but it’s not a way to learn,” Palmer said. “I just had my first class. Out of an hour and a half, I only got maybe 30 words where I could understand what the teacher was talking about. It’s stressful.”
Palmer believes word of Watson’s leave will spread through campus “pretty fast, like big gossip in a small town, which in a sense, UW-W is.”
He said students already are feeling unsteady, with some still trying to decide whether they’d made the right decision returning to campus this fall. Some universities in other, adjacent states already are considering shutting down again because of outbreaks of COVID-19 infection.
Add upheaval in the university’s top leadership on day two of the school year, and it might make the semester feel for some students to be even more up in the air than before, Palmer said.
“People are scared,” Palmer said. “It adds to the stress.”
This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. Thursday with reaction from the Whitewater City Council president and to clarify that Greg Cook was the interim provost.