When I ran for the City Council, I spent a lot of time learning about the issues that are important to the residents, and about the ways that we could solve problems that we face. One thing that I learned was that the good ideas are already out there. And may be the best thing that I can do as a member of the City Council is to find some of those great ideas and make them into reality.
Downtown Janesville has been brought up consistently, as a very important part of the City’s economic development. But many people talked to me about the downtown as a part of the City that we care about and want to see succeed. As in most cities, the downtown is the heart of Janesville, and making it “beat” is an important part of not only making Janesville a more prosperous city, but also an important part of how we feel about the place where we live.
With that in mind I have been looking for ways to revitalize our downtown. It became clear that the previous approach of trying to locate an outstanding business in our downtown, which would generate a lot of foot traffic appeared not to be working as well as we had hoped. It is also clear that asking a new or an existing business to open a new location in downtown Janesville is a proposition that would be a hard sell even in the best of times, let alone in these times of economic uncertainty. Recognizing that reality was extremely important, as it forced me to consider the type of a facility that would succeed in our downtown. Clearly, that would have to be a facility that would require everyday attendance from many people. Such a facility would naturally be a great anchor for many satellite businesses that could open around it, and cater to serve the needs of the increased foot traffic in the area. Restaurants, and various retail are the two types of businesses that immediately come to mind. Making such project a reality would either mean attracting a major employer to the area or…
It was mentioned to me by many people in many different contexts that what Janesville needs is what many other cities have, which is a College. A value of having a College is undisputed and has been credited with success of development of cities such as Beloit and Whitewater, just to name two of our closest neighbors. Such pronouncements are usually followed by the acknowledgement that yes, there is the UW Rock and of course the BTC, but neither one of those institutions is located in a place where it is a part of the social fabric of our community. UW is located deep in the residential area and BTC, by design, is located exactly between Janesville and Beloit.
So what about putting a College in downtown Janesville? As I thought about it, I realized that as important as the idea of a Training Facility is in an of itself, it is equally important to have a plan of what vitally needed skills could be taught in such a place, skills that would be of the utmost benefit to the residents of Janesville.
Considering the fact that with Mercy Health Systems and Dean Medical Systems looking to increase presence in our community, Janesville is about to gain even more recognition as the regional healthcare center, one does not have to be a brain surgeon to see that having an institution of higher learning that trains local residents to be employed in local businesses is a perfect fit.
And with the terrible news coming out of GM, forcing a large number of people to look at changing careers, it became clear that there will be an even greater demand for learning opportunities. Obtaining certifications in fields such as lab technicians, x-ray technicians and nurses, all of which require rigorous but fairly short training, and are almost guaranteed to provide those who complete these courses and get appropriately licensed, with well-paying jobs right here in Janesville, and in surrounding communities, would be an undeniable benefit to our local economic development, while providing a moral boost that comes with having a hope for better and more prosperous future.
Having that much of a concept in mind, I set out to talk to the leaders in our community, to see if this project was worthy of pursuing, or if perhaps there were major road blocks in the way, road blocks that one would be wise to avoid. Here, I would like to stop and thank all the people, among them members of our business, educational, political, government and community leadership, who took the time out of their busy schedules to discuss with me a Concept. I attribute it to the fact that all of us are interested in making Janesville a better place to live, that all of us are concerned about the economic impact of the General Motors about to leave our community, and because some of our most important projects start out as a dream, but as a dream worth having.
Very quickly it became clear that while the idea of a mixed-use training facility in downtown Janesville was universally embraced, the main problem was Money and where do we get it?
While the final answer to that question is yet to be fully answered, the answer just like the problem itself, may very well be staring us in the face: with the major lay offs faced by Janesville and the entire Rock County, there will be various forms of assistance coming to Janesville and Rock County from different levels of government. And what is the best way for us to invest that money than in our education? After all, that’s what we all do in tough economic times – we go and improve our skills – to make ourselves more competitive and marketable in our working environment. Why not apply the approach that we take as individuals, on a larger scale? Naturally, the opportunities presented in a project such as this would make it an excellent candidate for a public-private partnership, and I expect those possibilities to be examined as part of this exploratory process.
Another facet of this project that emerged from the discussions, was that currently most of the training conducted by various businesses in Janesville, is being conducted in hotel rooms around the city. As a member of the Council, and as someone closely involved with local businesses, I clearly see the importance of taking care of the businesses that are already in the City. Therefore it would be important to determine, if having a facility that would also offer training space opportunities in a location that offered the latest advances in telecommunications and training technology, would be a benefit to local employers.
And that brought me to the final aspect of this project, which has also emerged from these conversations: residential space. When people come to train, they usually want to stay as close to the training facility as possible. They may want to step out for dinner, but more often than not, room service is more attractive than going out. At the same time, having a hotel and perhaps even a residential space downtown, as part of a mixed-used facility, would allow downtown Janesville to make the next step in turning our downtown into a viable center of commerce.
Putting all of these goals together made me see that our City needs to take the leadership role in moving this project ahead, because while the idea of an educational and training facility in downtown Janesville is not new, the time to try and make this into a reality is now. Every crisis presents an opportunity, and I believe that it is in the best interest of the City of Janesville to capitalize on this opportunity while carefully leveraging the City’s assets, and move this project forward, because the real beneficiaries will be our people, our businesses, and our future.