By Kylie Balk-Yaatenen -  March 20th 2024



Cars lined up Tuesday in the parking outside Kohl’s at the Uptown Janesville Mall, watching as a large crane dug into the south wall of a former Sears building, crumpling it like paper maché.

The start of demolition marked the first visible sign of Sears giving way to the construction, on the same footprint as the once-iconic former department store, of the new Woodman’s Sports and Convention Center.

The demolition also came a day after the Janesville Plan Commission on Monday night voted to recommend almost tripling the size of a tax incremental finance district, from 44 up to 121 acres, that now stretches from Black Bridge Road northward to the Kennedy Road area south of the mall.

The expanded TIF district is proposed to now include the mall and its parking lots — but not the former Sears site that is being remade into the Woodman’s Center. The Janesville City Council is expected to consider the TIF expansion recommendation on April 8.

Gaping hole

On Tuesday, a giant hole soon appeared, exposing the inner fixtures and foundation of Sears, that was built in 1996, attached to the mall.

Brad Stepan, vice president of the Janesville Jets that will be the resident hockey team at the planned 2-sheet Woodman’s Center ice arena, multi-sport complex and convention center, watched the crane tear into the building with a smile on his face.

Contemplating the start of a new era for the Jets, whose home ice is now Janesville Ice Arena, 821 Beloit Ave., on the city’s southside, said it has been “exciting” to see the progress made this past year on funding for and planing for construction of the private-public project.

“We have been waiting seven years for the new arena,” Stepan said as he videoed the demolition to post on social media.

Local resident Paul Williams — not related to current Janesville City Council member Paul Williams — watched from his car as the cranes worked, saying in his view the Woodman’s Center will spur needed growth in the city.

“I never thought it would come down,” he said, of Sears, reflecting on the years that the project was in planning.

“People are going to have their complaints, but times have changed. If the center brings jobs and people into the city then it’s a positive thing,” Williams said.

Lester Grace recently opened Backyard Barbeque across Milton Avenue from the Woodman’s Center site, at 2517 Milton Ave. He said he didn’t move his business there from a former location on Kellogg Avenue on the southside specifically be near the Woodman’s Center. However, he considers the location a “win-win.”

“I think the convention center is going to bring much needed business to the great local shops and the greater Janesville community,” he said.

Grace said Backyard Barbecue already caters Craig and Parker High School team meals and is looking forward to feeding Jets teams members as well as local residents and those visiting Janesville who are taking in a Jets game, a youth tournament or some other event at the Woodman’s Center.

“My kids love the Jets,” Grace noted.

During the construction period, he said he’s anticipating traffic into his restaurant from construction workers.

15 months of construction

Once the Sears site is cleared, construction of the Woodman’s Center is expected to take 15 months, wrapping up in mid-to-late-2025.

The Woodman’s Center was proposed in 2019. The Sears site was eyed for the complex in 2021 and it was sold to the city of Janesville for $1 in 2022.

On Jan. 22, the Janesville City Council approved a $38.13 million construction bid from JP Cullen, of Janesville. Ultimately, the total price tag to build and outfit the center is expected to be $47.6 million, with 37% contributed by the city. That $47.6 million does not include future operating costs.

February groundbreaking

Demolition that began Tuesday came one month after more than 200 people gathered outside the former Sears to kick off the Woodman’s Center construction. Special guests that day included Gov. Tony Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

City Manager Kevin Lahner, at the groundbreaking in February, noted the power of partnerships and the importance of staying the course.

“I am proud to lead a team that will ensure this will be an asset to our city for years and years to come,” Lahner said.

“This project will help transform this area of the city and help one of our state’s fastest growing communities to thrive going forward,” Evers said at the February event. The Woodman’s Center will “bolster local tourism and have a positive effect that will be felt all across the state. I’m happy our administration could be a partner in supporting this really innovative project,” Evers added.

Baldwin said in February that the Woodman’s Center will help propel Janesville forward as a Midwest “tourism hub.”

“This was such an easy project for me to support,” Baldwin said. “I was proud to do my part and bring home $5 million in direct federal support for the project. I want to thank all the partners who made this possible and who are helping write the next chapter of the history of Rock County.”

Project borrowing

The council voted in February to borrow $15.3 million to help cover the cost of construction, and to pay off that debt over 15 years.

The owner of a $150,100 median-priced home in the city will be taxed $39.09 annually toward the center’s construction, as the city pays off that debt. That includes, for the owner of a median-priced home, $171.46 toward the city’s interest payments over 15 years. The city’s debt payments will include $5.78 million in interest.

What’s not covered by city borrowing is coming from other sources including $14 million in state reimbursements, $5 million in federal reimbursements, and $9.7 million raised by the Friends of the Woodman’s Center.

Construction impact on mall

Julie Cubbage, manager of the Uptown Janesville Mall, said the mall will remain open for the duration of the Woodman’s Center construction, with no change to its hours. She said the mall plans to coordinate with Alliant Energy to have planned power outages be during non-business hours.

Cubbage, whose office is near the construction site, said she will take the noise and general construction one day at a time.

As she contemplated what’s ahead, she noted change is hard for some people. However, sometimes it’s needed, she said.

She said as the news spreads of the Woodman’s Center’s coming construction, she is hearing from new retailers interested in space in the mall in the future.

That is “not going to happen overnight… we are just taking it one day at a time,” she said.

In addition to the mall, the expanded TIF district would include the Diamond Ridge Apartments on Woodman Road. It is not proposed to include the Milton Lawns Memorial Park on the east side of Milton Avenue.

Jimsi Kuborn, the city’s economic development director, said an expanded TIF district presents an opportunity to promote additional mixed-use development, offer incentive to redevelop properties in the area and to make infrastructure improvements. She said multi-family housing and hotels will be key focuses and expressed hope that the larger TIF district will see the same level of success as a downtown TIF district that includes the ARISE Town Square. Both the downtown and the Woodman’s Center are great examples of public-private partnerships, she noted.

Kuborn said over the life of the proposed TIF district, the city expects to invest about $3.9 million and in return anticipates seeing $17.4 million in new property value with its boundaries. The city expects to pay off any TIF borrowing within 17 years, and to close the TIF district 3 years earlier than the maximum allowable 20 years.

Kuborn said she hopes wrapping the expanded TIF around the mall in conjunction with the construction of the Woodman’s Center will revitalize it.

“We want the mall to be successful and bring it back to what it was before,” she said.

History of Sears

Janesville’s original Sears, on West Milwaukee Street in downtown Janesville, opened in the 1930’s.

In 1984, Sears moved to 2811 Milton Ave., now the site of Panera Bread and a UPS store.

In 1996, Sears constructed its new building, that’s now coming down. The two-story 110,000 square-foot department store was built at what had once been an opening into the mall.

Sears closed the Janesville store in February of 2018 and the retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy later that year.

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