It might seem as though the bid for a new indoor sports and conference center at Uptown Janesville is a phoenix rapidly rising as the $30 million proposal has vaulted back into the spotlight after the COVID-19 pandemic put a lid on public discussion of the plan for more than a year.
Still, the private-sector stakeholders and city of Janesville officials hoping to bring the two-sheet indoor ice arena and sports/conference space to town dispute any suggestion that the project is being rushed toward completion.
City administrators are asking the Janesville City Council today to OK the city dipping into half of a $4 million pot of federal American Rescue Plan Act money to use on the ice arena project.
The council will consider spending up to $2 million on designs for a project that would replace the former Sears store at the mall with a 1,600-seat ice arena that the Janesville Jets junior ice hockey team and other local hockey teams would use for practices, games and tournaments.
The ice arena would be part of an overall sports complex that would include a second ice rink and a 20,000-square-foot hard-court “flex space” that could double as a conference, meeting and event hall.
City administration is pursuing designs to help determine overall project costs after four years of on-again, off-again discussions between private stakeholders and the city.
Preliminary estimates have put the project’s cost at between $24 million and $29 million.
The proposal comes as the Friends of the Indoor Sports Complex, a private group that represents Janesville Jets officials and the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, recently announced it has raised almost $4 million in private donations for the project.
The proposal to move ahead with designs on the proposal hits the floor at City Hall today as one of a raft of spending measures city staff members are seeking the council’s blessing on.
It also comes amid the city’s 2022 budget planning process, part of which is the doubling of the city’s wheel tax from $20 to $40 per vehicle and moving to charge curb and gutter replacements to the stormwater utility as a way pay for street work with less borrowing.
The wheel tax hike and new stormwater charges likely will cost the average Janesville homeowner about $120 more per year on their annual tax bill, city officials have estimated.
Bill McCoshen, the president of the Janesville Jets, is aware that a new city council just seated in April is being asked to eye the ice arena in the midst of its first go-around with a city budget.
Under estimates still being used to weigh possible costs to taxpayers, McCoshen said a new sports complex in the mall would cost residential taxpayers an average of about $34 to $57 a year, depending on whether the city tries to pay off the project in 10 years or 15 years.
McCoshen said private donations of millions of dollars for the project have come through in just the last few months.
He thinks that means the iron is hot.
“We’re all guessing on timing, whether it’s good or bad,” McCoshen said. “But the reality is, my experience tells me that when a project’s ready to go to the next level, you try and move it forward. And that’s where we’re at. So it doesn’t make any sense for us to wait any longer.”
The friends group has asked the city to commit to a 50/50 funding match for the sports complex. That would put the city’s spending on the project at between $12 million and $15 million, according to project estimates.
Christine Rebout, the executive director of the convention and visitors bureau and a sports complex friends group member, said planners intend to pursue up to $3.5 million in federal tourism grants through the COVID-19 rescue funding program. Meanwhile, Rebout said, the group intends to chase a goal of up to $7 million in donor funding.
Both McCoshen and Rebout said one part of reaching a deal has become less clear in recent months: whether Uptown Janesville’s owner, RockStep Capital, would give the city the former Sears building as previously reported.
Buying that property could cost another $3.8 million, based on fair-market property values.
While a grant and additional donor funding sources are anything but guaranteed, Rebout said that if the Sears building giveaway comes to fruition, the possible financing represents a “capital stack” that would go toward the friends group’s burden of raising half the project’s funding.
City Neighborhood Services Director Jennifer Petruzzello wrote in a memo to the city council that the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau is willing to commit $80,000 in local room tax collections per year for five years, plus sales staff and marketing support worth about $45,000 annually. Petruzzello’s memo said those moves would make the sports complex profitable right out of the gate.
Part of the profitability equation relies on regular use of the planned 20,000-square-foot flex space for weekday business meetings, expos and other events. It would become the largest existing convention space in Janesville.
The friends group shared with The Gazette preliminary renderings of the facility, which the group is calling the Woodman’s Community Center. Woodman’s Food Market is a major donor for the proposed project.
The preliminary plans show a building that is both modern and imposing in its sprawl across most of the former Sears parking lot along the busy Milton Avenue retail corridor.
A sports complex at Uptown Janesville is being viewed as a boon for the mall, which has struggled for years to fill some of its large-scale department store vacancies, and for the scuffling local hospitality sector.
Rebout said she expects a bevy of local hotel operators and hospitality business managers will sound off in support of the project at the city council meeting tonight.