Surrounding cities can learn a lot from the can-do spirit and collective positive attitude of a once down-and-out community that’s pulling itself up. Paul Anthony Arco walks us through the highlights of Beloit’s successful community plan.
Scott and Teala and Lamoreux loved visiting Beloit’s farmers market so much that they decided to move their business, Northwoods Premium Confections, to the Wisconsin city earlier this year.
After just a few months at their new location, 314 State St., the couple couldn’t be happier. Sales are up, and new customers arrive daily to buy confections, fine chocolates, gourmet popcorn and other treats.
“We fell in love with the area,” says Teala. “It’s a quaint town with a beautiful riverfront. The people are amazing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sunny or rainy day. Everyone in Beloit is nice and courteous. The first day we opened, other business owners were out front clapping, and cars were stopping. I looked at my husband and said, ‘Is this for real?’ It was a made-for-TV moment.”
Spend a day walking around Beloit and similar good feelings abound. Businesses are thriving, the downtown area is bustling, and new projects are ongoing. Things weren’t always this upbeat for this town of 37,000. Locals say spirits were sagging for many years, due to unemployment and negative public perceptions about the city. The renaissance is due, in large part, to a renewed effort of cooperation between its community leaders and residents that’s gaining attention throughout the region. For Beloit, collaboration has become the name of the game.
“One of the great things about Beloit is the level of activity of all its residents, but particularly the leadership across the board – governmental leadership, institutional leadership, and business leadership,” says City Manager Larry Arft. “These people are absolutely committed to Beloit. They’re big boosters of the city and constantly looking for ways to help. Beloit has a positive and active citizenry, and the leadership is the vanguard of that effort.”
A major component in Beloit’s success is the role of civic leadership, primarily the Beloit 2020 group, a collection of CEOs and leaders from other private organizations. The organization, formed in 1989, was initially named Beloit 2000 and focused its first master plan on the riverfront.
In 2004, the organization, now named Beloit 2020, developed a strategy called the City Center Plan, which expanded the vision for renewing the historic core of Beloit. “The city center is 640 acres with the Rock River at the core and the downtown, Ironworks campus, Beloit College, and the confluence of the Rock and Turtle Creek as attractions for a vibrant and renewed city center,” says Jeff Adams, an economics professor at Beloit College and longtime member of the 2020 group.
While similar groups exist in larger cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, collaboration like this is unique to cities the size of Beloit. The group was created in 1989, as Beloit 2000, in response to several challenges facing the city, such as a decaying inner corridor, a declining tax base and job losses. There is no paid staff or physical location, just volunteers dedicated to making things happen in their community.
“Beloit 2020 was formed with recognition that circumstances in the city of Beloit were difficult, and it was making it hard to attract and retain young employees to work here, live here and raise families here,” says Adams. “The question then became, ‘What could this group do to improve the quality of life in Beloit?’”
After considerable planning, the decision was made to focus initially on the Rock River. The results include new walkways, a new riverfront park, public banquet hall, children’s playground, visitors’ center, an outdoor pavilion, a lagoon with a fountain, as well as a condominium complex, a hotel, and two new bridges over the river.
“These people are civic capitalists, whose goal is to build civic capital,” Adams says. “All business people understand the notion of building capital. There are four important elements that decision makers must have to make this successful: principles, plans, projects and partnership.”
Another Beloit 2020 project is the City Center Building, at 500 Public Ave. Opened in 2008, the former Wisconsin Power & Light Building was renovated for $1.2 million. The City Center Building houses the offices of four civic organizations: the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation; Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce; Visit Beloit (convention/visitors bureau); and the Downtown Beloit Association.
“The vision in Beloit begins, and implementation follows very quickly,” says Monica Kysztopa, executive director of Visit Beloit. “We have a date associated with an end result. We have thoughtful leaders in the community who can brainstorm ideas and pull the right people together to get it done. We sit in a room, make a decision, and then we move forward. We get it done. It’s nothing short of amazing.”
Unlike most local governments, Beloit operates with an appointed city manager, rather than an elected mayor. Arft has spent a 40-year career working in public service. He started in Berkley, Mo., before moving on to the Chicago suburbs, working as village administrator in Bolingbrook and Morton Grove. In Beloit, he’s finally found a place he can call home.
“We’ve lived in five communities in three different states, but we like Beloit the most,” says Arft, who was hired as city manager 10 years ago. “The people are friendly. It’s fun to go to an event and see the tremendous turnout of support. Beloit also has done an incredible job of reinventing itself as a modern, high-quality urban place.”
Appointed by the city council, Arft oversees all city departments, prepares the annual budget, coordinates the city’s strategic plan, and administers contracts. “I enjoy the pace and the variety of issues and challenges we face every day,” he says.
During Arft’s tenure, Beloit has seen strong revitalization in its downtown, riverfront and tree-lined neighborhoods. He points to other accomplishments, such as the construction of the Ken Hendricks Memorial Bridge, and attractions like the city’s award-winning farmers market. “There have been plenty of folks who’ve invested in Beloit,” he says.
Arft was hired for his extensive background in neighborhood preservation and economic development. “I was specifically recruited to be a driver and change agent for moving the community forward,” he says. “We’ve put a lot of energy into neighborhood preservation programs, and we’ve done a lot in terms of economic development. We’ve had tremendous success filling the Gateway Business Park.”
It helps that Beloit is near the junction of two interstate highways, I-39/90 and I-43. It’s 50 miles from Madison, 60 miles from Milwaukee, and 90 miles from Chicago. The development in 2000 of the state-of-the-art Gateway Business Park, on the east side of I-90/39, has attracted many companies to build in Beloit, including Staples Distribution Center, Morse Group, Menlo Industries, Specialty Tools and Kettle Foods. The American regional headquarters of Kerry Ingredients & Flavours, an Ireland-based company which manufacturers food additives, is also based in Beloit.
The city’s park system, which had deteriorated over the years, has also been rebuilt. The city has restored parks, replaced playground equipment, and performed extensive work to the ice arena, swimming pool, and golf courses.
“We do a little bit every year,” Arft says. “It’s a work in progress, and we’re pleased with what’s been accomplished. When I got here, city leaders were reticent to say that Beloit was the gem of the Rock River Valley. There has been a change of attitude, and that’s very much the focal point of our vision.”
The Downtown Beloit Association is a group of property owners, businesses and volunteers who make up Beloit’s business district. Membership is made up of 156 businesses in an eight-block area, that include boutiques and bookstores, live theater, museums, art galleries, and restaurants such as the 615 Club, La Casa Grande and Bagels & More. Downtown Beloit also is home to the international headquarters for Regal Beloit. A couple of years ago, Bushel & Peck’s Local Market, a market for regional and local-sourced products, opened in the restored Woolworth Building.
In addition to providing support, the association offers programs and services such as social media training to help grow businesses. The work put into rebuilding downtown Beloit has been overwhelming.
“We have very few vacancies downtown,” says Shauna El-Amin, executive director of the Downtown Beloit Association. “In fact, our mission is to have zero vacancies. We’re so excited about what’s going on. We believe the sky’s the limit.”
In addition, Downtown Beloit hosts more than 40 events a year. There’s a summer lunchtime concert series, and an ArtWalk featuring more than 100 artists. A farmers market is held on Saturdays from June through October. Each week, the market, the second largest in the state, draws more than 5,000 people and 90 vendors selling fresh produce and locally produced items such as honey, candles and other specialties. In December, downtown comes alive with Holidazzle, a special event with music, children’s activities, and artists displaying their work in 40 locations. “We try to have fun, family-oriented activities at every event,” says El-Amin.
The downtown district is beautiful thanks, in part, to 120 hanging baskets and urns on tree-lined streets, bike paths, and a public canoe/kayak launch. “There’s a commitment to the environment and sustainability that I find refreshing,” says Kysztopa. “There are planters, flowers, clean roads, great looking parks and the river. That just doesn’t happen. It takes a commitment. You need a community working together, and we do here.”
“The Downtown Beloit Association is one of our best-kept secrets,” says Arft. “They work very hard to put on special events that bring people into the city center on a regular basis. The beautification and other things they do to support the downtown area are quite gratifying.”
Among the community leaders instrumental to Beloit’s success is Diane Hendricks and her late husband, Ken, owners of ABC Supply Company and Hendricks Commercial Properties. Their efforts in acquiring and renovating abandoned industrial properties created the ABC Supply corporate headquarters, as well as the Ironworks campus headquarters to Hendricks Commercial Properties, Hertitage View a mixed use retail/office and residential property and other properties.
“For Diane and for Hendricks, this is our home,” says Rob Gerbitz, president of Hendricks Commercial Properties. “Beloit believed in them, and it’s important to Diane to return that support to the city that’s supported her.”
“Their involvement has been absolutely essential,” says Arft. “I don’t think these improvements would have been possible without them. They continue to invest very heavily in Beloit. The consensus that I’ve heard from people is that Ken and now Diane deserve a huge share of the credit for rebuilding and repurposing many of these old structures in the center of the community.”
The Hendricks Commercial Property’s latest project is the Phoenix Building, a four-story retail and multifamily redevelopment project located in downtown Beloit. The project contains 27 upstairs apartments and 14,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor. The building is scheduled to open in November.
“It’s been a lot of fun doing this project,” says Gerbitz. “We did our best not to build a building that looked 2013. We wanted a building that looked like they did in the old days. We want it to be the centerpiece of Grand Avenue and the downtown city center as a whole.”
Another Hendricks property, The Beloit Inn, is also undergoing major renovations, including a new lobby, restaurant, additional meeting space and upgrades to all 54 guestrooms. The project started in May, and is expected to be finished by early next year.
The restaurant adjacent to the hotel, Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint, replaced another popular restaurant, Café Belwah. Merrill & Houston’s is named after the founders of the business that would become Beloit Corp. The steak joint seats 100 and features live music, brick walls and old photographs of Beloit’s rich history. Merrill & Houston’s is open for dinner only, seven days a week.
Many of Beloit Inn’s guests are business professionals in town for training at local corporations like ABC Supply and Kerry Ingredients, along with parents, professors and alumni of Beloit College, as well as social travelers attending family reunions, weddings, class reunions and other special events.
Soon, the name of the property will change to Ironworks Hotel. “It’s going to be a completely different experience,” says Beoit Inn General Manager Nick Johnson. “We’re focusing on becoming an outside meeting destination. Companies have meetings here, and then attendees stay around to enjoy many of the things Beloit has to offer, such as golf, bike trails and other activities.”
Another vital contributor is Beloit College, founded in 1846. In 1989, the college organized some of the first meetings that introduced to the public Beloit 2000’s redevelopment plans for the Rock River corridor. Beloit College also was a key investor in the infrastructure construction of Gateway Business Park, and the college has located key buildings, including the Turtle Creek Bookstore and Hendricks Center for the Arts, in the downtown area.
“The college was very instrumental in the ’70s and ’80s as the major anchor of the east side,” says Arft. “They held older neighborhoods together during some rough times. The college is part of the enrichment that enhances the quality of life in Beloit. You don’t get that in every community.”
Kysztopa joined Visit Beloit as executive director six months ago. “What attracted me to this work and Beloit is the collaborative effort and implementing of projects that better this region,” she says. “I was surprised at the number of community events that garner regional and national attention.”
That includes the annual Edge of the Rock Plein Air week long painting event, sponsored by Friends of RiverFront, which ends with a public exhibit of the original paintings created during the previous week.
The Beloit International Film Festival is a four-day event showcasing independent films from around the world. Every year, directors, producers, actors and visitors flock to the Beloit area to view 140 films and meet more than 100 filmmakers, who come from as far away as Europe and China.
In the summer, there’s baseball action with the Beloit Snappers, the Class A affiliate of the Oakland A’s. The Beloit Angel Museum is the largest privately held angel collection in the world. The Beloit Public Art collection includes pieces in and around Beloit’s city center. The Wright Museum of Fine Art at Beloit College features more than a dozen exhibitions year round. The Beloit Janesville Symphony performs at several local venues, and live theater is found at Beloit Civic Theatre and on the Beloit College campus.
“Beloit has a really great cultural arts vibe,” says Kysztopa. “Those are some of the amenities that people are looking for in communities to live in and visit.”
To spread the word, Visit Beloit has recruited several community members to blog on its website about the positive things happening around town. And Kysztopa is just getting started.
“There’s an opportunity for Beloit to do niche marketing to the small meetings market and the smaller sports and non-traditional sports market,” she says. “There’s also an opportunity to showcase our restaurants, supper clubs, river and other attractions. I have a responsibility to create a buzz.”
“Monica has a lot of passion and energy,” says Arft. “She fits in well. When there’s a vacancy in the city, there’s a real strong effort to reach out – not just appoint someone, but to find high-quality individuals who have experience, good skills and a passion for Beloit. That’s why we keep coming up with dedicated people who want to improve life here. Monica is a good example of that.”
With the revitalization of the riverfront and downtown well on its way, Arft says future expansion plans now shift outward.
“People can expect to see reconstruction of the I-43/90 interchange, which will be completely rebuilt,” he says. “The state is going to expand I-39/90 to six lanes, and that will have a dramatic impact on the city as well.”
Work will also continue in the neighborhoods – infrastructure, resurfacing, code enforcement – over the next five years.
“Continuing the momentum is important,” Arft says. “It’s a work in progress. We don’t rest on our laurels. We have to always keep moving.”
There’s also an effort to expand redevelopment beyond borders of Beloit into South Beloit, Ill. Beloit 2020 is focused on a project called Connections, aimed at connecting the stateline with recreational opportunities, such as walking and biking paths, kayaking and boating. “We need to be able to communicate and work better together,” says Adams.
Northwoods Premium Confections also is moving forward. In January, the Lamoreuxs are planning an expansion that will help to meet a growing demand from its customer base.
“People come in every day and say, “Thanks for being here,’” says Teala. “It’s wonderful to be in a town with nice people who shop local, and are appreciative for what they have. That’s the difference between a smaller city and larger ones. Sometimes businesses like ours get lost in the mix in a bigger city. They struggle to stand out. Not here in Beloit.”
Gerbitz sees a trend taking place in Beloit. “I compare it to the Third Ward in Milwaukee,” he says. “It wasn’t great, but thanks to a group of people, they made it something special. The dynamic here is consistent with that. People like urban environments. They enjoy walking to a coffee shop or a book store. They like that feel. It’s a trend that’s going on in many communities and Beloit is following that trend. And that’s exciting.”