Ivann Steward had just moved to Janesville to manage a new Toppers Pizza location on Milton Avenue when he heard the rumble.
It was a half-dozen big pickup trucks, their throaty, de-tuned exhaust pipes blatting out burned diesel as the young drivers mashed their vehicles’ gas pedals at the turn of a green light.
Steward, who was born and raised on the west side of Chicago, had never seen teens in pickup trucks drag racing along a town’s main drag. Until 2017, he had never lived in a city cozy enough to have a “main drag.”
Steward saw one of the monster pickups pull up at his pizza place. When the late-teenage driver and his two friends came inside, Steward broke out an off-the-cuff piece of guerilla marketing. He told the teens if they and their buddies filled up his parking lot with the big trucks he had heard gunning it out on the strip, he would give them all a free pizza.
The ploy worked. Milton Avenue’s evening pickup truck clique now ranks as one of Steward’s major customer bases.
“That was kind of like my introduction to Janesville,” Steward said. “It really was something different. It reminded me of the kind of town you see in the old movies where kids are just cruising. There was something about it that felt like home even though I didn’t know anybody here and I’m not from here.”
Steward, 34, is one of a new breed of professionals in Janesville—a growing class of millennial-age people who are moving to Janesville and finding a fit in a small city they say to them is comfortable, affordable and, despite its relative lack of metropolitan flair, a place they can grow a career, a life and a family.
Brain drain reversal?
According to state data, more than a quarter of the workforce in Janesville is now made up of millennials. Since the end of the Great Recession, the number of 20-and 30-something workers in Rock County has grown to a greater proportion than most other local age groups, and the group has among the lowest local unemployment rate and highest labor participation rates.
Their ranks are growing in fields that offer strong-paying jobs, such as in construction, professional and business services and information technology, according to recent U.S. department of Commerce data.
In the younger labor force, about 30 percent of those working commute 15 minutes or less. That’s a sign that younger workers are increasingly finding work in the city where they live—a reversal of trends in the past that economists refer to as brain drain.
Some young local professionals who had left Janesville for what they thought might be greener pastures are now returning to find a hometown they say has begun to change and blossom in ways they had never imagined would have been possible.
Some are becoming part of that change.
Nathan Burkart, the executive director of the Janesville Performing Arts Center, left Janesville at 18 to attend college in St. Louis. Burkart, a performing arts professional, moved to Los Angeles along with his twin brother, Alex, to pursue a career in acting.
Burkart, a Craig High School graduate, lived in L.A. for eight years. He pursued his career, earning a role in “Jack and Jill,” a film produced by Adam Sandler, and starting his own theater company, the Los Angeles New Court Theater. Burkart also sold real estate to try to make ends meet in an expensive West Coast metropolis where the average home can run in the $600,000 to $1 million range.
Three years ago, Burkart moved back to Janesville to take a job as the new executive director at JPAC, an arts and entertainment venue in downtown Janesville that has begun to take off after a decade-long startup.
The move back home came at the urging of Burkart’s wife, Megan, a suburban Kansas City, Kansas, native.
“I brought my wife (Megan) here so she could see where I was from. And she absolutely fell in love with this place. And I was like, ‘Really?’” Burkart said. “At this phase, I was in my 20s, and I was like, ‘Well, you know, it doesn’t really have anything for me. You know, I want to be able to X, Y and Z with career growth and opportunities as a professional actor. And you know, this place doesn’t have that.”
Burkart’s viewpoint shifted when he said he began to learn what impact JPAC could have and what it could become to a community.
Burkart and the performing arts center are now involved in ARISE, a multimillion-dollar, public-private initiative to transform Janesville’s riverfront area downtown into a cultural and social hub in the city.
In the few years since Burkart’s return, he has seen Janesville’s downtown begin to flourish in pockets where new coffee shops, boutiques, specialty restaurants, music stores and microbreweries have opened in renovated spaces.
“If you would have told me when I was 20 that this what downtown Janesville could be like, I never would have believed it. But now, it seems to make such sense,” Burkart said.
In the same time span, Burkart has brought some major entertainment acts to JPAC and he has launched new initiatives for local playwrights and performances that take a local angle, such as “There’s no Place,” a locally produced play examining homelessness in Rock County. Performances for the show sold out, and dozens of viewers attending stuck around after the shows for hyper-local roundtable discussions on local homelessness.
“I feel like I’m becoming part of something within my own life that is a linchpin in the place where I live. That’s the best way I can describe the feeling of being here now,” Burkart said.
Nothing about Janesville initially drew Steward to Janesville except an opportunity he was offered. Steward had run a Toppers Pizza restaurant in Chicago’s South Loop area when a regional manager asked him if he wanted to move to Wisconsin, Toppers’ home state, and an area where the company was planning some growth.
“I told them sure. I said, ‘I think Milwaukee would be great,” Steward said. “So I already said yes, and they said, ‘No, not Milwaukee. Janesville.’ I said, ‘Janesville? What in the hell is Janesville?’”
Steward said he found out right away what Janesville was when he began seeing the same customers week in and week out. These were people he began to know by name. They shared details about their lives as he worked alongside his staff. They asked him to put on different songs and customers, staff and Steward danced together.
“My favorite thing now is when people bring their kids in on a Friday night. You know, I’ll give the kids a ball of pizza dough to play with. It’s fun. It’s that kind of town,” Steward said.
He said he realized the difference between living in an anonymous metropolis and a small city where he runs into customers routinely out in public and in his own neighborhood in the city’s Fourth Ward.
“I was getting lost in Janesville on purpose, trying to figure out where people go, when they go there, what they like, when they like it,” Steward said. “See, I’m running a pizza place that is open late. In a city the size of Janesville, it seems easier to learn fast what you’ve got to do and how to find people to help you do it.”
While Steward was busy getting lost in town, Burkart was finding Janesville again. He now lives with his two young children and his wife in a home on Courthouse Hill, a house he never might have been able to afford had it been located in L.A.
His parents live just a mile up the street. His children can spend a few days a week with their grandparents. Burkart can walk to work, then walk to lunch, then walk to a shop and then walk home.
That’s different than what he remembered about Janesville while he was away.
“The thing I’ve learned about Janesville over time is that it’s a place that will match whatever expectations you put into it—or don’t put into it. You can think about something you love to do, and say, ‘Yeah, but I’ll have to go do that somewhere else. Can’t do it here. Maybe that used to be true, but maybe it’s not so true now,” Burkart said.
“I think here, I’ve seen that you can have an impact, and you can take a community you care about and move things from point A to point B more easily than maybe you could in a huge city. People who care about that are watching, and they respond and get on board more quickly. I think more people my age are starting to realize that.”