JANESVILLE

It’s hard to find anyone on Janesville’s south side who isn’t excited—or at least intrigued—by Rock County’s plans to move all its social services into the former Pick ‘n Save supermarket on Center Avenue.

The move would mean hundreds more people a day coming and going along the south side’s main commerce strip—a potential boon for businesses in the convenience store and restaurant-heavy stretch of Center Avenue.

But it’s also hard to find a southsider who doesn’t muse on the thing they say remains conspicuously absent on the south side since the Pick ‘n Save closed in late 2017: A bona fide, fresh food grocery store.

The Rock County Board hasn’t yet approved the county’s proposal to buy the 130,000 square-foot Pick ‘n Save building, and the county might not move workers into the former supermarket for at least another year, but already there are signs of chess pieces moving along the Center Avenue corridor.

Last week, Jim Pritchard, a local locksmith, was changing out locks on the former Clark gas station and express mart at 1747 Center Ave., which is directly southwest of the still vacant Pick ‘n Save.

The station’s electronic marquee advertises gas prices, and a sign below reads “WE ARE OPEN CLARK.” The statement is not true, or at least, it hasn’t been for months.

The digital readouts on the station’s self-service pumps are blank, and inside, there’s just a smattering of expired candy, snacks and cigarettes and stacks of local newspapers that were printed sometime in 2018.

The station closed several months after the Pick ‘n Save closed.

Pritchard was swapping locks on the gas station doors while a manager who said he works at the nearby BP gas station at Center and Kellogg avenues looked on.

The manager didn’t want to be named because he said he wasn’t authorized to give information, but he said the former Clark has been closed for months. He indicated his BP station’s owner is in the process of trying to buy the station.

The manager said he didn’t have details, and the owner of the Center Avenue BP station didn’t offer The Gazette comment on plans for the former Clark.

Pritchard, a southsider himself, said he wondered whether action at the former Clark is now occurring because of the county’s sudden plans at the Pick ‘n Save, although thought that simply be “coincidence.”

One thing’s for sure, Pritchard said, the county’s purchase of the Pick ‘n Save won’t immediately involve a new grocery store.

He realizes nobody promised a grocery store would return to the Pick ‘n Save, and in fact, most local economic officials said they were skeptical it would happen, even before the property was sold and initially rezoned for light industrial use.

“I think everyone was hoping Woodman’s or somebody might want to do a second store down here, except you see that’s not happening,” Pritchard said. “It’s too bad somebody doesn’t want to do a grocery store, because we need one. Not everybody on the south side wants to drive a couple miles at least to go to the store, and some people just can’t.”

Rock County Executive Josh Smith said in interviews earlier this month that the county’s reasons for buying the Pick ‘n Save property aren’t primarily for economic development.

But he said extra foot traffic and activity that could be generated from a couple hundred more county workers and untold clients at the former store would likely qualify as an economic “assist” for the south side.

Smith said it’s possible that the western one-third of the 750-spot parking lot—a three or four acre portion that’s closest to Center Avenue—would be sold off by the county, possibly for commercial development.

But he said it would be the “wrong impression” to think that the county’s plans to buy and re-use the Pick ‘n Save were driven by future development prospects along Center Avenue frontage.

Smith told The Gazette last week it’s possible that all those who now work at the Rock County Job Center on Center Avenue would relocate a few blocks northeast to the former Pick ‘n Save store—including a major tenant at the job center, the state’s Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.

That would mean the Job Center, which the county also owns could be emptied out and put on the market.

The Pick ‘n Save, which is twice the size of the job center, would become a “one stop shop” for social services and job placement. The two facets of county services often have “crossover” clients, Smith said.

Argtim Shabani, owner of the Eagle Inn Family Restaurant, said he’s excited about the prospect of the county moving its offices, even if some of the county’s workers would be relocating from the job center to the Pick ‘n Save, essentially a game of musical chairs for those workers. Yet, there would be plenty of new workers moving in from the social services offices now of the city’s far north side—and more foot traffic overall along that corridor.

The Eagle Inn is located east off Center Avenue, about the same distance from the job center and the former Pick ‘n Save.

Shabani said if he gained even a couple dozen new patrons a day from county social services operations migrating here, he would consider it a boon.

“It’s more people. That’s the idea. The other thing is that if they’re people from all over town working there, then their friends, neighbors hear about the restaurant. It’s almost a new group of people, you don’t know how many.”

Shabani, who took over operations of the restaurant from his father four years ago, said he’s lived through the dropoff in customers in the wake of the nearby General Motors assembly plant closing. But more recently, the lack of Pick ‘n Save actually gave him a little boost in business.

“Everybody was complaining about, ‘Oh, my God, we have to go all the way to the other side of town for groceries, they said it’s more convenient to eat at a nearby restaurant more often,” Shabani said.

“I could see it myself, because I know all the regular customers. I started seeing them more often, you know. Twice a day, three times a day. I say, really? Like, come on, you know? But, Yeah. So many.”

A National supermarket analyst told The Gazette in an interview in 2017, when the Pick ‘n Save closed, that it’s becoming increasingly unheard of for grocery store chains in small or mid-size markets to develop or re-develop large-scale properties like the 130,000 Pick ‘n Save for use as supermarket.

Gale Price, the city of Janesville’s economic development manager, has said that there was little interest in re-use of the former Pick ‘n Save as a grocery store, even before it was sold and re-zoned for industrial use. He’s said that it’s likely a grocery store development on the south side would be much smaller in scale—probably 70,000 square feet or smaller.

Shabani, who is Macedonian, said he’s thought about opening a small grocery store on the south side. If he did, he’d focus on eastern European ingredients. He said that would fill a niche in the market for specialty food.

He said he’s got his hands full, though, with the Eagle Inn and another restaurant he recently opened in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

But Shabani said last year, he was scouting a few possible locations for a small grocery store.

“I never worked in a grocery store. I don’t know how it goes. I kind of need someone to work with me for that. I kind of I kind of would need someone that can start it for me, and I haven’t been able to find the right person,” he said.

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