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City officials hope to turn lemons into lemonade at the idled GM plant

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Marcia Nelesen
December 16, 2013

JANESVILLE--Assistant City Manager Jay Winzenz isn't prone to bouts of excitement.

But he slapped his hand on the conference table to emphasize a map outlining a proposal to move the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds to the site of the shuttered GM plant.

John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, is not one for drama.

But excitement crept into his voice, too, when Beckord listed—not once, but twice—the five redevelopment advantages of the 200-acre GM site.

The GM plant site has been in limbo for five years, languishing in standby status imposed by a nation labor contract between GM and the United Auto Workers that expires in 2015.

Questions abound.

-- Will a new national contract take the plant off standby?

-- If GM decides it no longer wants the plant, would GM keep the land, sell the land or give it to the city as it has done in other places?

-- How much contamination needs to be remedied?

-- Would parts of the factory remain or would the structure be demolished?

-- Would private investors be willing to bet money on redeveloping the site?

-- Would the land become industrial, public or a combination?

Some officials interviewed said it is becoming less likely the plant will reopen.

“The reality is that this plant is a very old facility,” Winzenz said. “It would take a substantial investment to retool this plant for production.”

Now is the time to start talking with General Motors about the future of the company's shuttered Janesville facility, said Jay Winzenz, assistant city manager.

The workforce is mostly gone. Workers transferred to other plants or took other jobs, he said.

Winzenz said he has talked to people who have indicated the UAW and General Motors might be willing to talk about disposition of the plant before 2015, when the national contract expires.

Winzenz is betting GM will sell or otherwise shed the property, leaving the city with an opportunity.

SITE AMENITIES

The city's comprehensive plan labels the area as industrial but makes it clear it could easily accommodate different uses.

Planners consider the “highest and best use” when deciding a property's future.

“We have 200 acres … more or less in the middle of the city that is a blank slate, or could be a blank slate,” Winzenz said.

The property has important amenities that industries want, Winzenz and Beckord said.

They include:

-- Access to rail service, something lacking in industrial sites the city currently has in its inventory, Beckord said.

-- Easy access to Interstate 90/39 via Reuther Way.

-- A wastewater pretreatment facility in good working order.

-- Newer boilers to generate steam.

-- A massive electrical infrastructure.

James Otterstein, economic development manager for the Rock County Development Agency, would speak only hypothetically, pointing out that GM has not made a decision about the plant site and could decide to hold on to it.

Hypothetically and assuming GM opts to let the property go, the next step would “involve the exhaustive and likely spirited conversations concerning the property's highest and best use … ,” Otterstein said in an email.

“Depending on who you talk with and what viewpoint they represent, you'll likely encounter a multitude of opinions …

“It's conceivable that a redevelopment plan for the GM Janesville property might include a mixed-used development that leverages not only the area's existing infrastructure assets, but also its surrounding natural (i.e. environmental) elements and any applicable 'wish list' items that the community has previously identified … ”

Redevelopment companies already have contacted the city, Winzenz said. Some are interested in selected demolition and reuse of the GM facilities. Others are interested in total redevelopment.

Winzenz concedes the predominant development vision for the site in the past has been industrial or distribution uses. Such industry jobs could provide reasonable pay and good benefits.

“Certainly, the former JATCO site is ripe for redevelopment,” he said.

But one redeveloper challenged city officials to think about the GM site and its surrounding uses: homes, the river, the downtown and the city's goal to create an entertainment district.

“It at least got me thinking about other opportunities for that site that might be a lot less intensive than industrial or warehousing types of facilities,” Winzenz said.

Now, Winzenz sees two distinct areas: 100 acres to the south—the former JATCO site—and 100 acres to the north near the Rock River.

The southernmost acres are best suited to industrial or warehouse use, Winzenz said.

Winzenz suggests one option would be to augment the remaining 100 acres with another 28 the city would buy along the river to create an entertainment and agricultural complex that could host the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.

One suggestion includes building greenhouses, heated with existing boilers, to feed the grow-local movement.

The city has a longtime goal to buy land along the river to increase public access, first put forth by famed city planner John Nolan in the 1920s.

'WHAT MIGHT BE POSSIBLE'

Winzenz recently met with GM officials, who gave him and others a tour of the plant.

“I'm very optimistic, at this point, between now and the end of 2015 we'll be able to work with General Motors, and the plan will be in place for disposal of the facility when the contract expires in 2015,” Winzenz said.

Beckord, too, said it is highly probable the site would be available for redevelopment after the national contract between GM and the UAW expires.

“That said, stranger things have happened, so one can't count on that,” Beckord said.

“It's also prudent to begin the process of envisioning what might be possible with that asset,” he said.

Beckord noted the site's amenities, which would attract certain kinds of industries, including food processors.

He said there's enough room for both the fairgrounds and industry.

Any effort would mean private and public partnerships, including the city, county and a redevelopment entity with experience in large-scale reuse.

Winzenz said now is the time to begin a community discussion on what it would like to create on its blank slate.

 “How many opportunities do you have to redevelop either 100 or 200 acres in the middle of your community?” Winzenz asked.

 “I think it's a process we need to start.”



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