Updated: Jun 22
Why do some cities thrive and some do not? For years I did not pay much attention to that question. I liked where I lived. When I had a day off, I traveled west about 45 minutes to the quaint city of Fairhope, Alabama, or 45 minutes east to Destin, Florida. I felt fortunate to be close to such vibrant places. Then, in 2005, I met with Jim Clifton, chairman of Gallup, and that conversation changed my perspective.
As we got to know each other, Jim shared the largest research they had done on why some cities thrive and others don’t. The key is economic development. The research said the cities that thrive stop or reduce the migration of talent. The mid and small population centers export their talent. People leave for two primary reasons: opportunities and vibrant or fun places to live. A thriving community has lots of venues and activities to bring people together. It also provides resources to help small businesses start and grow. None of this is about location; it’s about leadership.
After this meeting, a group in Pensacola, Florida, got together, held up the mirror, and used the study Jim shared with me as a blueprint for revitalizing our own city. I outline this process in my book Building a Vibrant Community. After 17 years of hard work, Pensacola is on almost every list of great places for everyone from entrepreneurs to retirees. Financially, we have never been better, and in many ways, this is due to new development, including repurposing of space.
Janesville is experiencing pushback against the Woodman’s Sports & Convention Center. This happened in Pensacola, too. Some said we couldn’t afford the investment. Some just wanted things to stay the same. Yet staying the same is never an option, for things either get better or get worse. Even still, there are those who get joy out of stopping things. We had our share and still do. The difference is that past success builds confidence and helps create an outlook of abundance, not scarcity.
What do I think about the Convention Center? (This is not a complete outside view for I know Janesville. It is also not the inside view you have.)
I think of development in terms of geographic circles. Janesville seems to have several circles. There is the downtown, the mall area, and the northern part where the interstate is, as well as the south side and west side. All are important and should feed each other. Let me focus on the first three.
First, the northern area. Due to its proximity to the highway, this area is doing fairly well. It will be impacted most by the economy and the financial health of franchises. It will likely receive both local dollars and out-of-area dollars, but my experience suggests it relies more on outside dollars. The key is getting those people to also spend dollars in other circles.
According to research on keeping talent home, a vibrant downtown is critical. With the town square, the local investors, and elimination of the main one-way streets, Janesville has a much better downtown than even ten years ago. It has a way to go, but good progress is being made. Revitalization is a marathon, not a sprint. The process of identifying a plan for development, seeking multiple funding sources, and execution helped you. I see similarities with the Woodman Center.
But today Janesville is disjointed. It is a city with a northern retail corridor, a downtown that locals can begin to take pride in, and an emerging business park in the south. But what about connecting the circles? You have to connect your assets in order to bring those outside visitors to discover your town. Janesville is fortunate on the mall’s location. It is a great place that will attract more private investment when there is more confidence. Again, looking at research, thriving communities have venues that can attract hundreds, even thousands, of people on a regular basis. These venues serve the residents as well as attracting people outside the city’s zip code. Creating something special midway between the main state and federal highways and downtown is important—it creates a community, not just “districts.”
Today there are many communities investing in public venues. I do not think spending lots of money on a venue is the one-and-only solution. It can be an important ingredient. I speak in various cities on this topic. In summary, my typical suggestions are:
1. Find the best location for the long term. Too many venues are built on highways and on out-of-way parcels due to cost of land. Neither works long term. I share that if the location is not right, do not spend the money. The question is, Will it attract private investment in the area? For example, in Pensacola, since the Blue Wahoos stadium opened, assessed property value within the community redevelopment district has gone from under $600 million to over $1.1 billion. I believe in your current mall, the opposite is happening at significant rates.
When public dollars are spent, they should attract at least five times the amount of local tax dollars in private investment. So if the city invests $17.3 million, it should look to see over $85 million eventually in private investment in the area. That is why putting a venue in a good location with enough land around it to attract investment is critical.
2. Don’t overspend on the venue. Many cities over invest in venues by adding bells and whistles that may benefit the lessee more than is needed. In Pensacola, some pushed for a 6,000-seat stadium with private suites. We had a finite amount of private dollars; in 2009, this was $15 million for the venue only. Any dollars beyond that had to come from other non-city sources. We ended up with a 4,000-seat stadium with 1,000 places to stand and no suites. There are much larger sports complexes in the U.S. This center seems to be focusing on meeting community needs with the ability to draw outside events as well.
3. Keep public funds to a minimum. When I read “public-private partnership,” too often it turns out the local public entity is the main payor. I commend the city for potentially investing about 30 percent of the cost. This is way better than most communities negotiate. Some have suggested a referendum. This can be an avenue, but in those cases, the local entity is picking up the entire bill. Others have suggested the city is subsidizing the operation. This is not unusual for a municipal service; it is similar to what happens with pools, golf courses, and other venues. In looking at the dollar amount per taxpayer, the key question is, Does it seem reasonable for the use compared to other city service opportunities?
I have read about this potential project for quite a while. I see the positives it will bring as well as the risks. That is true for any project that has a chance to have an impact. The key is, Is it the best move for the city? The Woodman's Center should support local businesses and attract others. A new hotel on site is a natural. The potential for private investment in the area is the strongest factor. But maybe as important is what it will do to keep and bring talent home.
Of course, despite the positives, as with any project, there will be people not in favor.
While I do not live in Janesville, two of my children do. I have donated $1 million for UW−Whitewater scholarships for Janesville youth and invested $2 million to save a building on Main Street called Block 42. I pay taxes and employ local people. I also have six grandchildren. The first one who graduated from college made the decision to live elsewhere.
The questions for me are, Will the Convention Center make Janesville a better place? Will it keep talent home? Will it be a great place for the residents? I believe the answer is yes to all. The Woodman's Sports & Convention Center is important because it will bring us concerts, shows, and other events for local people. Over 4,000 people attended the Jeff Dunham show at ABC Supply Stadium in 2022. Events like this can also happen in Janesville.
Many cities that thrive got to the point they had no choice: They had to improve. Janesville’s challenge is that it is a good place. The enemy of great is good. I encourage you to aim for greatness, not the status quo.
Owner of Bodacious Shops and Sky Carp