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Janesville tries to move past GM closing

Paul Snyder
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A hulking, vacant General Motors Corp. plant in Janesville is enough to persuade city leaders to stretch an already stressed budget by offering incentives to anyone willing to redevelop the land.

“Economic development is at the top of my list of priorities,” said Janesville City Council member Frank Perrotto. “The plant’s an eyesore already. It’s sitting there empty, and it doesn’t make Janesville look like a thriving city.”

But for now, the 4.8 million-square-foot production building will remain empty with no timeline as to how long it will stay that way.

Dan Flores, GM spokesman, said even though GM chose its Orion, Mich., plant for small-car production, the Janesville property could be put to use again if the market recovers and sparks more vehicle production.

“But that doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be picking up the facility again,” he said. “There’s no time frame for how long the facility will be on standby and no time frame for selling it.”

Meanwhile, Perrotto said, the city is stuck with a 240-acre albatross.

“In my opinion, the chances are slim to none that (GM) will put it to use again,” he said. “We would love to enter into negotiations with them or someone interested in doing something else.”

Developers expressed interest in the site, but several said its size could prevent one developer or firm from taking control.

“If we had that kind of facility sitting empty in Madison, I think it would stay empty,” said Brad Binkowski, principal for Madison-based Urban Land Interests Inc. “It’s just too big.”

But he said that would change if several developers take pieces of the property.

And despite its budget concerns, Janesville is willing to pay to get something done.

Eric Levitt, Janesville city manager, said the city’s $15 million cash incentive offer to GM — combined with a willingness to save the company $1 million annually by taking over the plant’s wastewater operations — if the company chose Janesville was in proportion to the number of jobs the automaker would have provided.

He said the offer is not a one-time deal.

“The city is interested in diversifying the economy,” Levitt said. “We’ve made the judgment that we have to encourage more opportunity here, and we would be open to looking at different proposals for the site.”

However, Levitt said, alternative development proposals for the site might not draw the same cash or business incentives.

Nevertheless, Gov. Jim Doyle provided $5 million in the state budget for the creation of a development opportunity zone in Janesville, and the city can use the money to encourage growth in struggling areas.

Perrotto said the GM site qualifies.

But that does not mean Rock County, which promised GM $20 million in incentives to revive the Janesville plant, will pony up again. County Administrator Craig Knutson said that was likely a one-time offer.

“I would never say never,” he said. “But it would have to be a pretty sizeable proposal to get the County Board to agree to put forward that kind of money again.”

Beloit, which offered $2 million to GM, likely will not offer the same amount again, said Andrew Janke, Beloit’s economic development director.

He said the GM small-car plant would have provided more than 1,000 jobs for the region, so an alternative would have to be in that range to attract the same offer. A mixed-use or commercial development for the site, he said, probably would not qualify.

But Janesville needs options before worrying about who pays what when, Perrotto said.

“I understand there’s a balance you have to strike between economic development and dealing with your own budget issues,” he said. “But if you wait, you might miss a great opportunity.

“At this point, if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards.”

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