The downtown Janesville Farmers Market might have moved eventually, but moving this market season wasn’t what organizers wanted.
The market is relocating from its 15-year home along North Main Street to a new space—the recently completed town square that spans the Rock River in the heart of downtown.
Letters exchanged early this year between the city and the private, nonprofit farmers market reveal the market had wanted to forestall that move for at least a year. Market leadership formally asked the city to allow the market to stay put along North Main Street in 2021.
The city denied that request and instead pressed the market to move in time to open in the town square in May, according to the documents.
Farmers market manager Emily Arthur told The Gazette the market is optimistic its move eventually will grow the market and give a boost to the heart of a downtown that in the last half-decade has seen millions of dollars in private-side redevelopment.
City Manager Mark Freitag defended a “pull” he said he led early this year to relocate the market. He said the move is aimed at boosting programming and making ample use of the improved town square area—an amenity that cost the city $16.5 million and private stakeholders about $3.5 million in donations.
The move has created hard feelings among some new and longtime merchants along North Main Street who say they’re unhappy the long-running farmer’s market is abruptly moving.
They say the move will shift weekend foot traffic away from a corridor where storefront owners also have sunk millions into recent improvements.
Critics of the market’s move also say they’re worried the farmers market will dominate the use of the riverfront’s town square for 27 warm-weather Saturdays a year.
Courtney Perakis, an entrepreneur who plans in April to launch the Sugar Exchange, a new candy shop and classic soda fountain at renovated space at 119 N. Main St., said she had just signed a lease for space in early January when she heard the farmer’s market was moving.
Perakis said she wants to be optimistic about the market’s move, but her initial business plans for the Sugar Exchange were tied to the idea North Main Street hosted a farmers market that drew thousands of people.
Perakis said she might have altered business plans had she known the market was moving.
Perakis is a former financial adviser who has operated an investment office in downtown Janesville and in the past has taken an active role in downtown groups, including annual beer festival Flannel Fest. She’s helped plan and launch events aimed at boosting foot traffic downtown.
Perakis thinks the city’s plan to plug in a farmers market at the town square to quickly “activate” the space might be shortsighted.
“I’m very concerned with taking an activated event—the farmer’s market—that has been a staple, active event in downtown Janesville for 15 years and moving into a new space that we created for additional activation of downtown,” Perakis said. “I feel like that’s going to bottleneck our ability to host and bring other events into downtown Janesville on the weekends.”
The Gazette obtained letters that show a back and forth between the farmers market board and Freitag in late December and early January. In those exchanges, the farmers market asked for a one-year extension at North Main Street so the market had a chance to stabilize after financial losses it saw last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The market’s board felt the move, which the city proposed late last year, didn’t give the market enough time to plan for a major change.
The letters from the farmers market board, signed by market manager Emily Arthur and market board President Jessica Locher, tell the city: “We do not want to move to Town Square in 2021 and fail because we did not have the proper time to prepare for the move.”
The market cited concerns about increased costs the city proposed for use of the town square at a time when the market was still “in the red” from the year before, according to a letter dated Dec. 30.
Since then, the city and the market agreed to the city this year waiving some special event and use fees at the town square, an agreement both the city and market said is aimed to soften sticker shock tied to the market’s move.
But prior to that agreement, in a Jan. 14 response letter to the market, Freitag denied the farmers markets request to stay on North Main Street. Freitag wrote that “it is important to draw individuals to this (town square) area and demonstrate to the community that their $20 million (town square) investment is being actively programmed.”
Freitag also wrote that the market’s past location for more than a decade along North Main Street has been a bone of contention for business operators in other parts of the downtown.
Freitag wrote that for years he’s received “complaints from downtown business owners that placing the farmers market routinely on North Main Street offers an unfair advantage over those businesses located on South Main Street and West Milwaukee Street.”
Freitag wrote that it “would seem prudent” to encourage more foot traffic on the west side of the river this spring and summer while West Milwaukee Street businesses wrestle with street closures during reconstruction of the main thoroughfare from the river west to the Five Points intersection.
Freitag wrote in his letter that the city had informed the farmer’s market in early 2019 that the market would need to relocate to the town square after both sides of the park were complete.
In a Jan. 18 letter, the farmers market board told Freitag the board had an earlier understanding that the city would give the market until 2022 to move to the town square.
Freitag told The Gazette that since the city first committed to building the town square, he and other city officials have envisioned the riverfront as a central location that’s preferable for large-scale events that would require street closures.
Freitag said the city might be open to the farmer’s market locating in another park in future years, but he said that going forward, the city wants to shift away from closing north and south Main Street for routine events such as farmers markets.
He pointed out that the town square has streets with pop-up bollards that can block off traffic. He said the move eliminates weekly traffic closures on Main Street, which is designated as a local trucking route.
Freitag said since relocating the farmer’s market, the city hasn’t heard of conflicts between events being planned downtown or “bottlenecking” of the town square as a public space.
Freitag said he thinks multiple users can share town square space over weekends, even if the market sews up both festival streets during the morning and early afternoons on Saturdays for half the year.
“Are there 27 other weekend users that are lined up ready to go there this year? The answer’s no, not even close,” Freitag said.
Arthur, the market manager, said the market has been working with North Main Street businesses to offer them kiosks or booths at the new town square location that might draw foot traffic from the market to their businesses.
Arthur said the market is still planning how it would set up on the new town square, including the east side portion, which the city and private investors capped off last fall with the completion of a pedestrian bridge.
Under preliminary plans Arthur shared, the market would set up along the back sides of South Main Street storefronts along South Water Street on the river’s east side. Vendors also would set up along the stretch of South River Street along the river’s west side.
Under preliminary plans, both stretches would be shut down to traffic, and people using the market could use the pedestrian bridge to move from one side of the market to the other.
Roger Elliott will be the first to tell you that he drove across the historic Smith Road Bridge hundreds of times in his life.
“Sometimes on a tractor, sometimes on a bike, sometimes in a car,” he said.
Elliott grew up in the 1950s on a farm on Creek Road, about 3 miles west of the unincorporated community of Tiffany in Rock County.
In boyhood, he often saw the Smith Road Bridge when visiting the feed mill or general store in Tiffany.
The 1910 bridge carried traffic on Smith Road over Turtle Creek between the towns of La Prairie and Turtle until it was moved last year.
“I knew that bridge for 72 of its 110-year lifespan,” Elliott said. “I always loved the sound that tires made rolling over its steel-grate roadway.”
In recent years, Elliott photographed and took measurements of the approximately 120-foot-long truss bridge on trips back to his old stomping grounds.
Earlier this month, Elliott of Chippewa Falls finished creating a 16-inch scale model of the original structure, which used both riveted and bolted connections.
His meticulously detailed model is as accurate as he could possibly make it.
“I’m guessing it is a one-of-a-kind model,” he said. “I can’t imagine anyone other than me undertaking such a project.”
Elliott’s bridge is part of a model railroad layout, which also includes a scene reminiscent of Tiffany in the 1950s and a scale model of the 1860s stone arch railroad bridge in Tiffany.
“When I started planning for the model and drew plans to work from last year, I had no idea the Smith Road Bridge had been removed,” he said.
Elliott recently discovered that Ken and Marcia Luety gave the bridge a new home on their property in 2020 with the help of their son, Paul.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation said the old bridge needed to be removed to make room for a stronger one.
The old bridge now stands across from the Luety farm on County J, less than a mile from its original location.
Elliott built his model almost entirely of plastic, and a few components came from a kit intended to be a railroad bridge.
Constructing the model bridge was a way of reliving his childhood in the 1950s, which he called “a great time to grow up.”
“You were lucky if you had a TV in the house then,” he recalled. “There were a lot of things to do outside, a lot of creative play.”
One of his favorite activities was going with his father to the Tiffany feed mill, where railroad boxcars hauled grain.
“I was infatuated with what was going on at the mill,” he recalled. “I hung around the boxcars while Dad did business.”
Young Elliott often climbed the ladder to the top of a boxcar, where he enjoyed a candy bar before climbing back down.
He was always careful not to let anyone see him, especially his dad.
On one of those days, he was eating his treat atop a boxcar, when mill workers started moving the cars.
“My immediate reaction was to panic, thinking the train was leaving and I wouldn’t be able to get down until some faraway-station stop,” Elliott said.
He held onto the roof for dear life until the cars stopped, and then he scurried down.
The incident helped fuel his lifelong interest in trains.
Elliott graduated from eighth grade at the one-room Kemmerer School, attended UW-Madison, worked as a handyman at Beloit Hospital and served in the Army during the Vietnam era.
He spent most of his professional life as a health care facility manager in charge of maintenance and construction projects at hospitals in Oshkosh and later Chippewa Falls.
Elliott retired in 2015 and calls railroad modeling a way to express his creativity.
His railroad model project, which includes the Smith Road Bridge, is about 20% complete.
“This thing may never be done,” Elliott said. “If it isn’t, that’s OK. It isn’t about the destination but the journey of getting there.”
Dale Lee Burkett
Tommy J. Gubbin
Darlene J. Jacobs
Elva G. Langmeier
Michaele Eileen (Hatlevig) Lloyd
Armond Assante Luckett
Lisa M. Marko
Walter “Wally” Marshall
Marsha Ann McLaughlin
Charles Allen “Charlie” Mishleau
Ione C. Moyer
Patricia M. Scott
Shirley A. Shultz
Rita J. Soetaert
Mildred Louies (Ingram) Woodson
Three quarters of Rock County’s 65-and-older population has received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
What’s the significance of that milestone? Health officials say it’s already helping local health care systems.
State data shows 75.1% of seniors have at least begun the vaccine series. County health data shows 16,897 seniors have completed the series, meaning they have received two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
Mark Goelzer, medical director at Mercyhealth, said having a majority of seniors vaccinated has started to ease the pressure on health care staffing and resources, which were squeezed during fall and winter when coronavirus activity reached its peak.
Mercyhealth has not had to reopen any of its expanded COVID-19 units in weeks, and it can operate with its existing number of negative pressure rooms, Goelzer said.
Health care workers also have started to see better health outcomes because of improved treatment for COVID-19, he said.
If trends persist, the county and state should see the death rate from COVID-19 continue to flatten, he said.
People ages 65 and older are the most vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID-19. Of the 163 Rock County residents who succumbed to the disease, 85% were older than 60. The average age of those who died is 75.7 years old, according to county data.
Nursing home residents and staff were among the first to be vaccinated in winter after being hit hard by the pandemic nationwide.
The United Way Blackhawk Region has launched rockcountyshot.com, a website with local information and resources regarding COVID-19 vaccine access, eligibility, safety, cost and more.
Goelzer and Eric Thornton, president of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, said both health care systems have seen noticeable drops in the number of nursing home patients being referred to hospitals.
“The nursing homes in the area have been (vaccinated),” Goelzer said. “... And I think that’s been a saving grace.”
However, those improvements could reverse if people begin to relax too much, he said.
COVID-19 case activity and hospitalizations have crept upward in Rock County over the last two weeks, which could pose a serious threat because the community is nowhere near herd immunity, Goelzer said.
He said repercussions of increased case activity aren’t usually visible until weeks later. If today’s higher case activity gets worse, the community could see more deaths in late April.
Although most COVID-19 deaths have involved seniors, people younger than 65 still can get seriously ill and die.
“I have some significant concerns about spring break, as far as people traveling as much as they have been and going to places where not all people are wearing masks,” Goelzer said.
Daily increases in vaccinations for people ages 65 and older have started to slow in the last week, which could indicate an easing demand for shots.
The health department is working with the county’s vaccine advisory group to improve transportation for people with vaccine appointments, which is an issue some seniors might have, said epidemiologist Nick Zupan.
Health officials also are making an effort to expand vaccine access for people who are homebound, Zupan said.
State grants announced by Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday will aid vaccine outreach, including expanding transportation resources, according to a news release.
Inclusa, a family care organization, and The Hmong Institute both plan to use the grants to improve transportation in Rock County, according to the release.
Seniors who are vaccinated should continue to exercise caution when in public and in groups, Goelzer said. But they also can start to enjoy simple pleasures again, such as visiting with small groups of family members or with other people who are vaccinated.
“From a grandparent standpoint, it is OK to hug your grandkids and stuff,” he said. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t throw caution to the wind and assume it (the pandemic) is over.”