Janesville putting General Motors in the rearview mirror

The executive director for Forward Janesville, John Beckord, is trying to reframe the narrative surrounding the area’s economy as it puts General Motors in the rearview mirror.

Nearly 10 years after GM left Janesville, the metro area’s unemployment rate has hit a record low for the area — 2.8 percent in December, according to the Department of Workforce Development — and major employers are expanding their presence in the region.

Beckord calls this a “story of prosperity at the local level,” and chalks up the improvement in employment to “one part public policy, one part national economy and one part hard work.”

He notes economic development groups have been promoting the area containing Janesville and Beloit to potential employers for the past decade. He says that has encouraged local companies like industrial supplier Grainger to expand further as well.

“We’ve had the good fortune of having companies like Grainger decide that their facility here is a high enough performer that they’ve expanded it dramatically,” he told WisBusiness.com. “We’ve had some big companies coming in here — Dollar General, most notably.”

He says “a broad-based mix” of industries have expanded in that time, including warehousing distribution, customer service jobs, metal fabrication, food processing and more.

“The narrative is that we’re open for business, but more importantly, we’re not a collapsing auto town,” he said, arguing that national news media companies “just do not want to let go” of that idea.

“The narrative will not die that GM is still a big burden to this community — but it’s not,” he said.

Forward Janesville, the Janesville area’s chamber of commerce, appeals to businesses by pitching Janesville and Beloit as a unified region, Beckord says.

“We want to draw that circle as large as possible,” he said. “We’ve got a terrific location, with terrific sites available. There’s a very business-friendly local government that’s ready to work with prospective companies.”

He says Forward Janesville has “set the table for future development” by successfully connecting with site location consultants, who are hired by companies to find land for new facilities.

“We understand the importance of having to constantly court and nudge companies along,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition for that investment… We’ve been courting them, informing them about opportunities for 10 years. It takes a while, but that has done well.”

Beckord points to Commercial Development Corporation buying and beginning development on the land once occupied by GM.

CDC will knock down old buildings, clean up environmental issues, and generally make the site ready for a new tenant. Since the site has “robust rail resources,” any company using rails often for transport would be a good fit, Beckord says.

Beckord says collaboration between Rock County, Forward Janesville, and the cities of Janesville and Beloit is crucial to building confidence in local employers and prospective developers.

“It’s not as common as you might think, communities and counties working as an alliance the way we do,” he said. “The fact is, the way we’ve managed to work together is a big strength, and an important part of those efforts.”

As for potential impacts of the Foxconn project on the Janesville area, he sees it as “a wildcard” that’s “outsized in terms of what we’ve been used to.”

“It’s so massive; 13,000 jobs, that’s enormous,” he said. “That could affect us.”

–By Alex Moe