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(Janesville, WI) By Marcia Neleson, Gazette

The charitable arm of Forward Janesville is leading an effort to build a riverfront amphitheater that backers believe could become one of southern Wisconsin's premier outdoor venues.

The $4.8-million Janesville Riverfront Amphitheatre would include a stage large enough to accommodate a symphony and a permanent ticket, restroom and concession area. For big events, the space could hold up to 4,200 people.

The amphitheater would be built in green space between the Janesville Performing Arts Center and Hedberg Public Library on Main Street downtown.

The project includes work inside JPAC, as well, much of which would support activities outside.

Organizers with the Forward Foundation hope the structure would be a “catalyst” project and kick start ongoing efforts to rejuvenate the downtown. They believe it could bring $1 million in visitor spending annually.

John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, and Ryan Garcia of the city said no similar permanent stage can be found elsewhere in southern Wisconsin.

The amphitheater could open as soon as July 4, 2015, although organizers admit that's ambitious.

No tax dollars would be used in construction or maintenance, backers say.

The city would continue to own the parkland on which the facility would be built, and it would own the venue, as well. JPAC would be responsible for maintaining the facility, and fundraising includes a maintenance account.

The performing facility would accommodate a range of events from small, local activities to events that could draw more 4,000 people. Eight larger events could be scheduled during an outdoor season.

A  typical week at the amphitheater could feature an American music and crafts festival, a family movie night, a wedding rental and a weekend blues festival.

Revitalization efforts for downtown sputtered over the last decade because of the economic downturn, Beckord said.

 “We've been talking about how the business community can step forward and give some momentum,” he said.

As the Forward Foundation developed the plan, it included organizations connected to the space, such as the Noon Lions Club, which partnered with the library years ago to develop the park; JPAC; and the library board.  Some of the members are also active on downtown committees.

Elizabeth Horvath, executive director of JPAC, described the proposed venue as similar to Ravinia near Chicago, only smaller.

JPAC would manage the entertainment for the outdoor venue.

Garcia, economic development coordinator for the city, said an outdoor venue in that space was suggested in a 2007 downtown study.

He is optimistic about the project but noted that the city must follow its public process, which includes neighborhood meetings and then reviews and approvals by the plan commission and city council.

“We have to appreciate it will be an impact to that whole area, and we are being sensitive to that,” Garcia said. “Balancing the pros and cons is going to be critical.”

Many details remain to be worked out, he said, but the idea is sound.

“We want to work with them to the extent that it is feasible and possible to see something does happen to our downtown,” Garcia said of the city's collaboration with the project's backers.

The goal of recent downtown development efforts is to find ways to reach a critical mass, or “tipping point,” to get people downtown, Garcia said.

Planners suggest that an area needs a good balance of spaces, activities and unique businesses to reach such critical mass.

Jeff Hazekamp of Angus Young Associates, the architectural firm that would design the facility, said organizers want to keep the venue as busy as possible with community events and activities.

As for the aggressive timetable for a July 4, 2015, opening, Garcia said: “If they can align the stars to make that happen … we would make an effort to facilitate that.”

Organizers have been meeting with affected parties for weeks, including the library board, which has yet to vote on the proposal.

Library Director Bryan McCormick said he is “cautiously optimistic” that concerns such as parking and noise can be addressed.

The owner of Stone House Development, which owns the apartment building that houses JPAC, alluded to the project at a recent public meeting and said she is in support.

Members of the Janesville Noon Lions Club, which partnered with the library on the use of the green space, are “100 percent” behind the plan, said Steve Huth of the club.

The economic downturn  impeded the group's efforts, and plans for the space have languished for years. This plan ties in well with the club's visions, he said.

“It takes us to the next level.”

Information distributed by Forward Janesville said the group pledges to engage the private and public sectors in “getting the job done this time around.”

The economic impact of the facility is only one aspect. The other is attracting and keeping in the community young adults who are critically important to the future of local businesses, according to Forward Janesville.

“A vibrant, diverse, cultural and entertainment scene is often cited as a key element in retaining and attracting young adults,” the group says.

 “A successful launch of this ambitious project will build momentum to continue implementation of the 10-year vision of improvements from Traxler Park to the Monterey Dam.”

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