At the corner of Milwaukee and Franklin streets, Bill Sodemann’s business, Phone Plus, sits in the heart of an area anticipating $42 million in public and private investment.
Downtown Janesville is poised for millions of dollars in improvements. City officials said the city’s investment in downtown has created a ripple effect, drawing investments from donors, public-private partnerships and even small business owners such as Sodemann.
A Gazette analysis of city data shows more than $42 million has been or will be invested in downtown Janesville, with about half coming from donations and grants.
The total doesn’t include dozens of small, purely private projects, such as the creation of Block 42, a collection of retail and restaurant shops in a refurbished building on North Main Street, or The Venue, the refurbished events venue overlooking the Rock River at Court and Main streets.
Before the takeoff of ARISE, the city’s plan to revitalize downtown, Sodemann started sprucing up his own property. What he’s noticed in the past couple years is more downtown business and property owners following suit, creating a “synergy effect,” he said.
“That’s really what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to get people to say, ‘Oh, the city’s making an investment. It looks nice. Now, let’s do it, too,’” said Paul Woodard, city public works director.
Since 2015, the city has issued 50 building permits for work in the downtown and surrounding area.
“Look at the building permit activity—a lot of little projects going on downtown in addition to the big ones. People are investing in downtown,” Woodard said.
One major private project coming downtown is the creation of a $6.72 million hotel at Milwaukee and River streets. The city is kicking in just over $1 million in tax increment financing incentives, but the remainder is coming from the developer, according to the data.
The private development, big and small, comes after the city’s investment in projects such as the removal of the downtown parking deck, Milwaukee Street’s conversion to two-way traffic and creation of the Town Square’s southwest park.
According to the data, donations funded or will fund more than one-quarter of the $42 million in downtown projects. Most of that money comes from fundraising through AriseNow, a collection of public and private organizations supporting the ARISE initiative, and from Forward Foundation, the fundraising arm of Forward Janesville.
“It shows that not only are we coming in with grants, but there’s community buy-in on this. It’s not all the city going toward this,” Woodard said.
The Forward Foundation will pour $4 million into downtown Janesville by paying for various ARISE amenities to further boost city projects. For instance, when River Street is converted into a festival street, Forward Foundation will pay for decorative arches along the corridor, Woodard said.
The idea is they’re funding the “frosting on the cake,” he said.
Forward Foundation also will pay for a $1.8 million pedestrian bridge that will stretch over the Rock River where the parking plaza once stood and an interactive water fountain near the Town Square.
Donations to the Forward Foundation come from other foundations and from businesses and individuals who want to make an impact in the community, said JoLynn Burden, AriseNow’s director of development and community engagement.
“Certainly it’s leaving a legacy for their family, their business and seeing their community thrive,” she said.
More money for downtown projects comes from grants, which make up nearly one-quarter of downtown project funding. Several grants come from the state Department of Transportation, which is contributing nearly $7.7 million toward road projects, such as the Milwaukee Street reconstruction and bridge replacement, according to the data.
Other grants making up the $10.2 million total will pay for the Monterey Dam removal, parking deck removal, Dodge Street parking area improvements, and more.
The city doesn’t have a dedicated grant writer, but it does employ talented people who successfully apply for grants, Woodard said.
“We’ve been pretty aggressive about trying to sort out the grants,” he said. “We’re getting pretty good at it.”
Tax increment financing districts set up to pay for city projects also make up nearly one-quarter of funding for downtown projects. TIF money will pay for east-side Town Square improvements, River Street’s conversion to a festival street, Dodge Street parking improvements, and more, according to the data.
About $5.28 million in local tax dollars—or about 12.6 percent of the total—will be used to pay for downtown projects, according to the data.
When it comes to projects of this size, it’s important the city doesn’t pull money from only a couple sources, especially just the taxpayers, Woodard said.
“That’s what you want to do; you want to have a mix of grants and private donations and city money,” he said. “You’re getting money from different sources.”
And as projects happen and people see what the city is doing, the hope is more will want to invest. The city has begun to see that happening already.
Councilman Rich Gruber said it’s evidence of the theory of concentric city development. As people invest in the core of a municipality, nearby areas start to invest in themselves, too, he said.
“It’s a well-established sociological principle that development reaps development,” Gruber said. “It gets to be kind of contagious.”
“You kind of want everybody putting money in towards downtown,” Woodard said. “You gotta get creative in how you finance this stuff.”