(Janesville, WI) By Neil Johnson, Gazette
Brothers Shannon Kennedy and Shawn Kennedy have plans to bring their insurance service company's relaxed, white-collar culture—and its 35 employees—to a industrial building downtown that dates to the early years of Janesville.
As early as October, SASid Insurance Development, known locally as SAS, plans to move its company from the office space corridor on the city's east side to the former Carriage Works building at 10 N. Parker Drive in the heart of downtown Janesville.
SAS's move is part of a trend that's begun to spark in and around downtown Janesville: white-collar professional companies moving their operations into vacant or underused former industrial properties in the city's downtown core.
Earlier this year, local property developer Mark Robinson announced he plans to turn a circa 1890s former tobacco warehouse at 207 N. Academy St. into an office/retail property that Robinson says will house on one of its floors the Janesville-based website development firm Foremost Media.
SAS, the Janesville-native Kennedy brothers say, has outgrown its days as a late 1990s dot-com upstart, and the 6,000-square-foot office it owns at 462 Midland Road. They say they're trying to expand employment in the next few years to as many as 60 workers who'd handle facets of insurance product marketing, design and technical services.
The company's plan includes converting the vacant, 10,000-square-foot third floor of the late-1800s Carriage Works building to an open-space office that would keep intact the former carriage manufacturing facility's Spartan, brick-and-beam industrial character, but add touches of flare.
The company plans a slide—that's right, a slide—that would allow workers to quickly and playfully scoot from the third floor to offices planned on the second floor.
“We're in insurance, right? So we're well covered for something like this,” Shannon Kennedy said during a tour of the space that will house the company in a few months.
A TRENDY TREND
The idea of a slide, Shannon said, came from designs for a San Francisco tech firm's industrial-modern warehouse reboot.
“The space we're looking at here, it's a little bit of Chicago, San Fran and Milwaukee, and we've got it right here in Janesville,” he said
Foremost Media, like SAS, ran out of room to expand in its current office space on the east side, and opted to lease space the former warehouse the Robinson is now calling The Gray Goose.
The city granted a $500,000 tax increment financing deal earlier this year to Robinson and Foremost Media to push forward the $2.5 million renovation, and Robinson is working on approval from the state for historical tax credits.
The Kennedys bought the Parker Drive property in January 2015 for $525,000, according to Rock County Register of Deeds records. Shawn Kennedy said the company plans to keep its current office space and potentially lease it.
They're in the middle of getting state historical society approval on designs and floor plans for the upstairs renovations at the Carriage Works, a part of negotiating tax credits for the work.
Between the SAS and Foremost Media, their future locations would immediately transplant 60 professional workers who will spend their days downtown, the owners said. As the two companies grow, the number of workers the two firms could employ downtown could climb to 100.
Darrin Wasniewski, Downtown Development Program manager for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, said he's been seeing the trend in medium-sized cities statewide.
For service-based or niche companies, it can be unaffordable or unfeasible to build new offices. Small companies looking to expand are turning to use of vacant space in downtown areas. The shift, Wasniewski said, also is a response for companies' need to attract and retain younger talent. One way to do that is to offer a work location where younger workers could prefer to be.
“What companies are finding is the millennial generation workers, and some of Generation X, they're wanting to be connected to the pulse of something. They don't want to be work out in an office park. They want to eat, drink,and walk around a downtown,” Wasniewski said.
A HOMETOWN FIT
For the 40-something Kennedys, who both were born and raised in Janesville, and are both Craig High School graduates Janesville's downtown is a natural fit.
“We could have moved our company anywhere. Chicago—Pensacola, Florida, I don't know. But we wanted to be here,” Shawn Kennedy said. “We love Janesville.”
Both Shawn and Shannon say their main reason for relocating to the third floor of the Carriage Works is not its cavernous space, which they plan to break up with clusters of desks, comfy couches, ping pong tables and a glass partition to separate a board room area with a southwest-looking view of downtown Janesville.
Well, the space is part of the reason. The other is the location--being downtown.
“We told our employees we were thinking of moving. And then we surprised them with this location. They've come here, looked around and they're thrilled,” Shannon Kennedy said.
“But you know what they're most thrilled about? A walk to get coffee. A walk to get lunch. That's where we see employee growth opportunity for us. It's the byproduct of enjoying what you do but also where you are doing it.”
On the building's finished second floor, which houses law offices and a yoga studio, SAS has set up sort of a test space for a few employees. The office overlooks Wiggy's Saloon, a bar and grill across the street on North Parker Drive.
Chris McLay, an SAS employee who works in the office, pointed out the window at Wiggy's.
“That's our board room over there,” McLay said.
McLay wasn't kidding.
“We actually do take clients in there. A lot,” Shannon Kennedy said.
A WORKING CATALYST
For downtown Janesville, which is in the middle of a cycle of street makeovers and a riverfront revitalization that public officials and private developers hope will redefine downtown as an entertainment-based area, relocation of firms such as SAS and Foremost Media comes at the right time and in the right form.
SAS develops, administers and markets insurance products for outside insurance vendors. In the last three years, the group has posted revenue growth of more than 200 percent and has landed on lists of the nation's fastest-growing companies.
The company is in a sweet spot that lies in technical, professional service and insurance fields—all of which are among the most rapidly-growing industries in the country.
Locally, about 10 percent of jobs are linked to those fields, and those jobs range in pay from $45,000 to $70,000 annually, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.
Wasniewski said public initiatives for revitalizing downtowns can follow a few tracks, including plans for adjacent housing developments, creation of public amenities and a shift to a specific commercial sector, such as creating an entertainment district.
But an insurgence of professional employment in a downtown, an influx of above-average wage-earning workers who spend money downtown, can help push overall revitalization forward.
“Depending on the community, you need to start developing a critical mass of entrepreneurs of commerce coming back in to work. Then, retail and support service will spring up along side of it. They'll grow and expand together,” Wasniewski said.
The Kennedys are eying the possibility of developing a restaurant on the building's first level. The restaurant, they said, could make use of a long-forgotten grass lot on the backside of the building that's hemmed in by the building and the retaining wall of a raised parking lot.
For now, the brothers say they're thinking mainly of the influx of their own workforce.
“It's nice to know we'll be responsible for bringing 60 people or more into downtown every day. I think the time is getting ripe for this downtown,” Shawn Kennedy said. “There's enough people to support it. We just need to make it cool, and that's what we're working on.”