Helgesen, one of Rock County’s largest developers, doesn’t parse words when
he’s asked if the Janesville area is better off today than it was when General
Motors Corp. was the 800-pound gorilla in town.

question about it: I think Janesville is much better off today,” said Helgesen,
president of Helgesen Development Corp. “We’ve shifted to a more technological
type of business and to (computer-driven) manufacturing.  We were forced to come to grips with our

are still plenty of laid-off GM workers who would disagree, but the rebirth of
a diverse economy in Janesville, Beloit and the rest of Rock County is a
success story in the making. It bears watching by other communities in

closing of the Janesville GM assembly plant in late 2008 meant 5,000 jobs at GM
and other auto-related firms were wiped out, sending Rock County into a
tailspin just as the worst of the recession hit Wisconsin and the nation. The
county’s unemployment rate peaked around 13 percent.

late, however, the news out of Janesville and Beloit has been much better.
Companies such as Kettle Foods, United Alloy, Universal Recycling Technologies,
SSI Technologies and Kerry Ingredients have expanded.

tech companies such as NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes and SHINE Medical
Technologies have announced plans to build production facilities. ANGI Energy
Systems will keep its production local by moving from Milton to Janesville, and
Data Dimensions, which produces business automation solutions, continued its
growth by acquiring Data Exchange Center Inc. of Brown Deer.

story may be best illustrated by the renaissance of a building that was once
occupied by a succession of GM suppliers.

700,000-square-foot Helgesen Industrial Center was empty a few years ago but is
now fully leased by companies such as John Deere Central Consolidated, Cummins
Engine, Lowe’s Millwork and Freedom Graphics. The latest to sign up is
Miniature Precision Components, which will add about 90 jobs to its existing
Wisconsin workforce of 1,000 people over the next three years.

the closing of Eau Claire’s Uniroyal plant in the mid-1980s and how that
facility was revamped, Helgesen decided to “subdivide and conquer.” He carved
the 700,000-square-foot building into smaller sections, adding the amenities
and utility systems that would allow each unit to function independently.
Leases were written to allow more flexibility for tenants, as well.

absorption rate in the last year has been phenomenal,” said Helgesen, noting the
same is true for owners of many other once-empty sites in Janesville.

than 1.2 million square feet of space in Janesville alone has been reoccupied in
the past 18 months, according to Vic Grassman, economic development director
for the City of Janesville.  The city has
a “shovel-ready” industrial park of 224 acres ready for expansion, he added, as
well as a business incubator and some aggressive incentives.

trying to fulfill all of the major legs of economic development – retention,
expansion, attraction and entrepreneurship,” Grassman said. 

signs of progress in the area include a revival of plans to expand Interstate
90/39 between Madison and the Illinois border, as well as improvements to
access roads in Rock County, which are now recording as much truck traffic as
they did before GM shut down. Also, St. Mary’s Hospital opened its new
facilities in the last year and Janesville Mercy Hospital completed its

that once feuded over development issues have also found common ground, as
evidenced by joint city events such as Rock County Days in the State Capitol
and a recent trade fair with more than 160 booths.

everything is wine and roses for Janesville and Rock County, of course. Unemployment
remains well above the statewide average, one recruited firm chose not to
relocate and many people are holding their breath over the drought’s effects on
the farm economy.

however, we’ve turned the corner,” Helgesen said. “We had to cope and we are.”

800-pound gorilla is gone and the GM plant itself remains shuttered, but
Janesville and Rock County are moving on. Crisis sometimes has a way of doing

Still is president of
the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the
Wisconsin State Journal.