Change is conspicuously underway in downtown Janesville, and the pace will quicken in the new year.
The parking deck is coming down on the Rock River, Milwaukee Street now is two way through the center of the city and new businesses are setting up shop in formerly vacant spaces.
Some of these developments are part of the city's long-range development plans, while others are coincidental and fortuitous.
The vision, however, is for a downtown Janesville that is vibrant, welcoming and a long way from the days when General Motors was the pulse of the city.
“People talk about a tipping point when enough different groups of people, as well as the city, are invested in the downtown where it pushes the momentum in a positive direction,” said Bekki Kennedy, who is overseeing the development of the Bodacious Shops of Block 42. “That's where I see us.”
Kennedy's parents, former Janesville residents Rishy and Quint Studer, purchased the buildings on North Main Street about a year ago and envisioned a rebirth of small businesses downtown.
“They're really passionate about the downtown,” Kennedy said. “I think they really saw things happening and really wanted to be a part of that and build on some of the great things that Janesville has and create a place that people wanted to come and spend time together and really make it a destination.”
The shops feature three connecting businesses — Bodacious Brew, Bodacious Olive and So Chopped.
John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, said the downtown improvements will help attract more businesses and residents to the city.
“It also will make Janesville more attractive for new employees to live in this area,” he said. “Area companies are scrambling to fill positions. The downtown improvements will help make Janesville an attractive place to work and play.”
Some of those new workers already are in town with the arrival of SHINE Medical Technologies' corporate offices in the Prospect 101 building just down the block.
“We love it (in downtown Janesville). We couldn't be more excited,” said Katrina Pitas, vice president of business development. “We can't wait to see what downtown Janesville has to offer. There are a lot of restaurants and a lot of fun things to do within walking distance.”
SHINE is in the process of building a state-of-the-art production facility for the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99 near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.
City of Janesville administration has been a major player in the transformation of downtown.
The city council approved a $384,000 tax incremental financing incentive package to lure SHINE's headquarters to Janesville.
“We went through a rigorous site selection process when we were looking for a new location for our corporate headquarters,” Pitas said. “We looked at distances from airports. We looked at distances from highways. We were pleased with the character of Janesville. They cared about our company and made us feel that they wanted us here. They really made us feel welcome and that we were an important part of the community. That tipped the scales in Janesville's favor.”
The office initially will employ 35 people with more staff being added in the future.
“By the time our production facility is up and running, we plan on hiring about 150 people,” Pitas said.
The company plans to break ground on its production facility in early 2017 and produce its first commercial product at the plant in 2019.
Hitting the deck
Credit Janesville's crumbling parking deck for the flurry of soul searching and creative vision about the future of downtown.
After years of planning, local officials and downtown business people gladly took a swing at the deck with sledgehammers Nov. 16 during a ceremonial start to the demolition of the aging relic.
In recent years, the structure was in need of major repairs, but the state Department of Natural Resources said it couldn't be replaced.
In 2012, with the realization that the deck and its parking spots eventually would be gone, conversations began in earnest about what kind of city center Janesville deserved.
“The parking benefits are great, but the thinking now is to expose the river so everyone can enjoy it,” said City Engineer Matt McGrath. “We want to make the river the focal point of downtown.”
The cost to demolish the parking plaza is about $1.1 million. The city recently received a $380,000 grant from the DNR and a $494,000 community development block grant to help fund the project. About $204,000 will come from a tax incremental district, and the city will use $70,000 from its general fund to pay the rest of the costs.
“Grant funds will cover most of the cost of the demolition,” McGrath said. “The city will contribute local funding from the TIF district, which will cover the cost of the design.”
The deck is expected to be gone by spring, which is the first item of business in the Rock Renaissance Area Redevelopment and Implementation Strategy, better known as ARISE, that the city council adopted in 2015.
That will clear the way for the Town Square project, which is the first phase of many improvements along the river.
The Town Square development is expected to begin later this year with improvements along the south side of the Rock River near Court Street, including steps down to the water, a platform stage, river lawn and green space area, promenade and boat launch for canoes and kayaks.
“It will be a nice green area where people can gather and have family events,” McGrath said.
Improvements to the north side of the Town Square on the river's west side are expected to begin in 2018. The project will include the relocation of the Ice Age Trail.
“Part of the trail is on the plaza, so when the plaza comes down we will lose part of the trail,” McGrath said. “The plan is to reconfigure the trail and build a new structure that stretches out about 20 feet to the river and reconnects to Milwaukee Street.”
McGrath said the city also plans to construct a bio-filter which will be used to help clean stormwater run-off before it enters the Rock River.
“The DNR is requiring cities to look for opportunities to clean stormwater before it's dished out into the river. The bio-filter will treat the stormwater and allow the water to be cleaned before it flows down as groundwater and into the river,” McGrath said. “It will become a neat segment of the Ice Age Trail. We will have informational kiosks to educate people about why the bio-filter is there and what it does.”
The cost of the south end projects will be about $1.2 million, and the cost of the north end improvements will be about $1.1 million.
“The total cost of the west side improvements will cost about $2.3 million,” McGrath said. “We have approximately $870,000 in grant money to assist with the costs, so we are happy to be able to secure that.”
River Street goes festive
The downtown will become a little more festive within the next few years with plans to reconstruct River Street from Court Street to Milwaukee Street into a festival street, McGrath said.
The festival street could be used for community activities during the weekends.
“It will operate as a normal street Monday through Friday,” McGrath said. “But on the weekends if we need it for special events, like the farmers market, we will close that area of River Street for pedestrian traffic and use it for events and gatherings.”
The east side of the river will not be neglected because there are plans to reconfigure Court and Milwaukee streets for revised parking in 2018. The project is expected to cost about $250,000.
Another project planned for 2018 is a pedestrian bridge. McGrath said the bridge will cost about $1.82 million and will be paid for with private funding.
McGrath said improvements to the Town Square area will help make downtown Janesville a popular destination for residents and visitors.
“(The downtown) will look more modern,” McGrath said. “I picture the Town Square as being a focal point of the downtown area. There will be new decorative surfaces, lights and grass areas. There will be more landscapes. It will make the downtown more pedestrian friendly. Hopefully, it will be the hub of the downtown area.”
The city also plans to replace the Milwaukee Street bridge beginning in 2018. The new bridge will be about 60 feet wide and will include 10-foot-wide sidewalks.
The bridge replacement project will cost about $4.4 million. About 80 percent of the project will be paid with a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“The grant money will help a great deal,” McGrath said.
West Milwaukee Street is set to be reconstructed in 2020. McGrath said the project will be similar to the Main Street reconstruction project that was completed in 2015.
“It will look a lot like Main Street, after we reconstructed Main Street last year,” McGrath said. “There will be new lighting, and it will be more pedestrian friendly.”
The project will cost about $2.5 million.
For businesspeople like Kennedy, however, the future is now.
“We're hoping we can do some fun things over the winter, like snowball fights or snowman building contests. Once it gets a little warmer, we would like to utilize the river,” she said.
“It's been really great to see how all the businesses collaborate and try to support one another,” Kennedy said. “We've felt that collaboration, and we certainly want to contribute to that.”