Photo: Brett LoGiurato/Business Insider
JANESVILLE, Wis. — The symbol of this town’s economic past sits rusted and nearly abandoned. The Janesville General Motors plant is still patrolled by a single security guard, who comes up and directs you away from the factory that was once the economic centre of this town.”You can’t park there,” she says. “It’s public property.”
The GM plant is a reminder of where the town’s economy used to flow. Where the security guard points is out toward the new economic frontier of Janesville, Wis.
In a politically charged election season, Janesville’s economy is one that is starting to adjust and even flourish, more than three years after the GM plant made its last truck.
The city, which is the hometown of Republican vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan’s hometown, people on both sides of the aisle are fluttering with economic optimism as the town has revamped itself economically.
“At one time, I thought we were going to become Detroit,” said Kay Spangenburg, a resident of Janesville who lives in Ryan’s neighbourhood. “We are looking a lot better now. It feels like that old saying — what is it? ‘Morning in America?'”
That, indeed, was the message of President Ronald Reagan when seeking re-election. Janesville is a prime example of a town suddenly on the rise economically, something that can hold politically important implications. On one hand, President Barack Obama is blamed — fairly or unfairly — for the demise of the GM plant, after he visited it during a campaign stop in 2008 and pledged that if it got the government support it needed, it would stay open for “another 100 years.”
That, plus the Ryan factor, should threaten to take away votes from Obama in Rock County, home to Janesville and traditionally one of the most heavily Democratic counties in Wisconsin. But with the local economy improving — the town’s unemployment rate is down more than 4 percentage points from 2009 — there is still hope for the incumbent.
Jason Mielke, the Rock County Republican Party chair, paints the picture of the town and county’s turnaround. Jobs will be created at a new Northstar Technologies plant in nearby Beloit, Wis., which produces products that replace isotopes used to screen for cancer and heart disease.
A few miles away from the Janesville GM plant, meanwhile, a new SHINE Medical Technologies plant is going up, part of a growing medical services industry in the Janesville area.
“We’ve really embraced a new identity here,” Mielke said. “We’re seeing some higher technology like that come in right now. The medical field is a great place to be.”
It’s not just the medical field, however. Janesville is home to Blackhawk Technical College, which is redefining its programs to meet local companies’ demands for workers skilled in welding.
“Manufacturing isn’t the old, dark place anymore,” he said. “It’s very much a clean-room kind of environment. So they’re working on providing the education needed to close that skills gap.
“We’re just seeing a lot of great things happening here. Janesville just didn’t roll up and leave. It was a tough several years. After the plant closed, it’s tough. We’re not totally out of it yet, but there are a lot of great people working in this community with leaders that are willing to step up and make things happen.”
At this point, it’s more than just optimism — local businesses are seeing the results of a more fruitful economy. At the Kutter Harley Davidson dealership in Janesville, general manager Gary Sinks said that the dealership had numerous contracts with GM before the Janesville plant closed. And he said the Harley Davidson dealership was on track in 2012 for its best year since 2006.
“And I’m selling recreational vehicles,” he said. “Let me put it this way: If I’m doing well and I’m the recreational vehicle guy, you can bet we’re turning the corner.”
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