Beloit: A Transformation Leaders Roundtable

For more than three decades, this Wisconsin city has followed the path toward revitalization. How did it happen? We asked 12 stakeholders about the secrets to building a better community.

A city can go through a lot of change in the span of four decades, especially when that community’s stakeholders dedicate themselves to making that change.

Since Beloit leaders set out to transform their city in the late 1980s, this southern Wisconsin city has become a poster child for smart growth. While many of the transformation forerunners have passed the baton, their successors are continuing that early vision of a Beloit where people can successfully live, work and play.

What’s the secret to this community’s success, and what’s the next step in transformation? This spring, we sat down with stakeholders from across the city as we sought their take on the “secret sauce” of a region’s self-improvement.

Since the Beloit 2000 Plan launched, your city has witnessed some incredible successes and transformations. Among those wins are improvements to the riverfront, the revitalization of the Ironworks factory, ABC Supply Co. headquarters, the Gateway Business Park, expansion of Interstate 39/90, and many new businesses and venues downtown – like where we’re sitting today: ABC Supply Stadium. From your vantage point, what do you think are some of the most meaningful developments from the past few decades?

Gerard: We’re quite a distance away from where the city was when I first came here in the early 2000s. I think it’s just amazing what a facelift can do to a community. When improvements started to happen, there seemed to be an automatic energy. Everybody wanted to up their game a little bit. It’s pretty amazing, actually.

Clark-Mather: Having an apartment downtown, I would say that the renaissance downtown is really an enhancement. I was able to start a business because I can literally walk to my office. I just started earning another degree over at Beloit College. It’s opened up so many opportunities.

Price: The Visit Beloit office used to be St. Paul’s Catholic Church. We are turning it into an event space, which is going to be awesome for the downtown area. The outside of the church looks like it did when it was built, and the floors inside are the original wood. The stained-glass windows are going to be the same. We see this all around Beloit. It’s not just moving forward. It’s looking at how we can reinvent ourselves. How can we be modern and attract people, but also stay true to that history and that charm that so many people love about Beloit?

McCoy: I’ll take a different route. It’s not about the projects and facilities and things. My wife and I moved here in 2018, and the difference was the people and the relationships. Moving here, we started noticing that people are so nice. My wife had a number of her friends come up for lunch one day and they said, “You haven’t lived here even six months yet. How do you know all these people?” She said, “I didn’t know anyone.” But everybody talked to her. Everybody welcomed and everyone was welcoming. And I have seen that demonstrated over and over and over again. It’s just how Beloit is. It’s wonderful to have the amenities and a stadium, but if you don’t have people inside the city who care about it, it’s not going to thrive.

Bliss: Along those same lines, you’ll see that support and love through our community with our small businesses. They’re a large part of our community. You know, we love all our large developments like ABC Supply Stadium, but those one-of-a-kind, family-owned businesses are really driving a lot of visitors to Beloit. Our community is a large support system for our small businesses. And I see it more since the pandemic.

Kellerman-Scarpetta: It’s about the people. We have some amazing things at our hospital because of the support we get from our community: a phenomenal heart hospital; our totally renovated Packard Family Care Center, where moms and babies can go; our cancer center, which allows for a partnership with the University of Wisconsin. Being a community hospital is our goal. We want to serve the community and to provide what the community needs. We just had a community safety day last weekend, and we had 800 kids and families come to our front lawn and experience fun things like getting a pretend cast or learning “this is how your lungs work.” That’s who we are and what we strive to be every day. And we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have that community support– especially in this era of the larger hospitals that are owned and headquartered somewhere else. If we didn’t have people who believed in what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to serve, we wouldn’t exist.

Furseth: One of the things we say is we support our own. And I think that comes in a lot of different ways. We support our small businesses. People in this city support the nonprofits with donor dollars. This city has, for decades, not waited for other people to solve problems but has proactively worked together to identify solutions and then stepped up to fund those solutions. I have never been in a more collaborative environment. Beloit’s secret sauce is that everybody comes together. If we need to make this happen, everybody looks around the table and says, “Who’s doing what?” And, you asked about what project is most important. They’re all important. It was just the project that you needed at the time.

That being said, a piece of Beloit’s success is the willingness of a broad range of businesses and individuals to take the risk of investing in this city. We saw that with Kerry Group building their North American headquarters here, the Sky Carp baseball team building this stadium, Gateway Business Park, Irontek, and places like Riverside Park, Nature at the Confluence, the Lincoln Academy and the Packard Family Care Center.

Flickinger: As an employee of the Beloit Sky Carp, I like to think we’re a microcosm of what’s happening in Beloit. Now, I love Pohlman Field. I met my wife at Pohlman Field and have a lot of great memories there with my kids. But you can see the difference between our current stadium and Pohlman Field. Beloit had this reputation where teams would come in and say, “Oh boy. This is going to be a tough trip.” But now, the visiting teams say, “You guys have the best food,” and “We love our hotel,” and “This stadium’s amazing.” It’s just so gratifying to hear. I can assure you that did not happen just a few years ago, so I’m so grateful to be a part of that.

Clark-Mather: We had a filmmaker in town a few years ago who described the people here as “aggressively friendly.”

Pennington: Our downtown is for pedestrians. It’s walkable and that’s a big part of the secret, in my opinion. You haven’t seen the bulldozing of buildings for parking lots in the past 20 years. You see a lot of adaptive reuse of buildings. Designing for humans, not cars, has been the focus.

Price: The free public parking is a huge draw for a lot of people, especially if you come from a city where you pay for everything. It’s awesome to have free parking, should someone need to drive. But you really don’t need to.

El-Amin: And park as far away as you can, so you can get the whole experience. That’s been our motto. You can walk all the way downtown and see a baseball game, then get some ice cream or whatever else you want to do. There are a lot of people living downtown, which adds to our vibrancy. The two hotels add to that. People don’t have to stay out on the interstate or in a chain hotel. They can come downtown and stay in a boutique hotel. That’s really a game-changer, having boutique hotels that are right-priced, with a rooftop bar and a bunch of other amenities. They’ve put together for their guests to go to the farmers markets on Saturdays and walk and do everything else downtown. And they talk about the other businesses downtown. They don’t just say, “Here’s what you can do at our place.” They say, “Here’s what you can experience for the whole weekend.” Visit Beloit puts a weekend package together that says, “All your hotel guests can do all of these things on the weekend.” There’s so much to do all weekend, every weekend, all year.

Of course, getting here wasn’t a straightforward path. Could you share about some of the challenges you, your organizations, and your predecessors have faced in transforming Beloit?

McCoy: There was a stigma about Beloit that was certainly there and isn’t completely invisible today. There’s still a little bit of a long-time-ago history. There was a reputation in the past, but you can say that about any place. So, it’s more about what we do, going forward, to overcome that.

Clark-Mather: One obstacle we need to be cognizant of is crime. I remember there was a time when we called it “Be-troit” because it felt like a scary place. This city has come a very long way since then, but in some respects people still hold onto this image – even though this community isn’t like that.

Gabrielatos: The statistics from Police Chief Andre Sayles indicate that gun violence is down significantly. We want our community to be safe – and we know it is. This summer, police officers played a kickball game with kids from Fresh Start. That builds relationships with kids. That relationship drives crime downward and prevents it from happening. Chief Sayles and our officers have done a tremendous job, and the community has been open about working collaboratively. That’s how you keep crime down.

El-Amin: The police now are coming to a lot of events to interact with the community. They’re not coming in reaction to something bad. So, there are four cop cars at my Street Dance, for instance. The officers are just interacting with community members. And we love that. We think that’s a great message to have here. There’s a stigma we must get away from – that notion that, if you see a bunch of police somewhere there’s trouble. When they’re out there just interacting with people, that’s a good thing.

Furseth: I think it’s important to acknowledge that infrastructure, whether it’s public safety, education, roads or parks, is as important as economic amenities. Beloit is a problem-solving community, so, when crime goes up, people take notice and say, “What has to happen differently?” If you compare data from a couple of years ago to now, there is progress and that’s intentional. What must happen moving forward? Our schools are struggling. It’s a huge issue on a lot of levels, so people get together and try to create alternatives. Sometimes, it takes a long time. Sometimes, there are heavy lifts and hard work, but it’s all important. When there’s a problem, you must solve it. I think the city does a good job of that.

Looking to the future, what’s the next bar Beloit is reaching for? And what are those benchmarks of progress? What does it take to say, “mission accomplished?”

Gerard: We’ve got some great arts organizations, but everyone’s struggling, and the arts oftentimes end up being the low feeder in a lot of ways. Finding funding for what we do is challenging, but we need to do a better job of it. We must do a better job of reaching out beyond Beloit and deeper inside Beloit to find sources for revenue, so we can make the arts more visible and more productive. The arts are where we refresh ourselves and inspire ourselves. That’s an important component for a community that’s trying to accomplish big things. It’s where we learn and share new ideas. We become aware of things we never thought of before and we become inspired. We must find ways to build a great arts community that can serve people and give them inspirational value, that philosophical value.

Pennington: I’d say housing is the next frontier. Our population has been roughly the same for 60 years and we’ve got to figure out ways to get it moving in the right direction. It’s a very challenging time. Housing costs are extremely high. We compete with markets that are a little more profitable for homebuilders, so that’s a challenge. Figuring out how to solve that housing puzzle is a big topic of discussion.

Gabrielatos: Sustaining our economic growth is key. That’s important to everybody in this room. I would also say that our poverty rate is higher than I’d like it to be. I think everybody in this room shares that concern as well. We want to make sure the economy is working for people at all ends of the spectrum. That’s critical to the city’s success, and that’s something that we’ll keep working on for the next few years.

Flickinger: On the question of education, if you’re looking to attract young families, one of the first questions they ask is, “What are your schools like?” If we’re not satisfied with the answer to that question, then how can we work together to move the needle? I think getting buy-in from all members of our community is critically important.

Price: Celestino Ruffini, Visit Beloit’s CEO, and Matt Bosen, our director of sales and servicing, have been following through on survey data that shows the importance of youth sports development in Beloit. When we invest in our youth, we know it’s not just beneficial for them, but it’s beneficial for everybody. Kids who are on a team build skills as they work with one another toward a common goal. Those are life skills. Also, there is an economic impact. If we have a tournament where the players are nine years old, those players can’t drive themselves. So, you have mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, brother, sister, maybe a friend who wants to come along as well. Suddenly, one player has six or seven other people coming with them to Beloit. Multiply that by 10 or 12 and you can see how the numbers grow quickly. A tournament here, just for a couple of days, has a huge economic impact. And, if that’s happening year-round, we become a sports destination for youth sports as well as a cultural destination.

Thurner: Economic development is so important, but the current business climate is very important to us, as well. Day care is such a huge issue in our community for working parents. We also need to consider how employment is going. How is the workforce? We want to be able to help local companies build their talent pipeline. I would say workforce is kind of a hot-button item right now.

Kellerman-Scarpetta: I’d add that we see the economic issue from two sides. At Beloit Health System, 68% of our patients are Medicare/Medicaid. So, our patients have economic concerns. The health system does $20 million a year in charity care for the community. On the other hand, when we’re recruiting physicians, they have quality of life concerns. They ask us things like, “What are schools like? What is there to do?”

McCoy: But there’s a disproportionate amount of people in our professional industries who live outside Beloit because of the housing shortage and concerns about the school system. Headwinds for the future? Housing and education are both headwinds that we face on a regular basis.
On the economic side, ABC Supply Co., Fairbanks Morse Defense and Kerry Group are all $1 billion-plus in sales for the community of Beloit. That’s huge. So, from a workforce perspective, that is a tremendous asset that we have, and we don’t look past that.

But if we can persuade more of these employees to reside in Beloit and spend time here seven days a week instead of just during work hours, it’s a unique opportunity for us to be even better than we are.

As a closing thought, what advice would you offer to a community like yours that wants to pursue a brighter future?

Thurner: Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Clark-Mather: I would be careful not to duplicate services.

McCoy: Support family-owned services. As a bank, we don’t have any publicly traded companies that are part of our portfolio. We have 100% family-owned businesses. And we’re owned by families. A true community bank and community service organization is focused on its community.
I’m not taking anything away from Fairbanks Morse and other major corporations in town. There’s a tremendous number of good things that those large companies do for us, but family-owned businesses are the heartbeat of a community, and they are what enable us to grow and thrive. If you go with all national-branded things across the board, you lose touch with your community.

Pennington: I would agree with that. And for local governments, lead, follow or get out of the way. Don’t obstruct.

Price: Starting small is key. Pick an area. For Visit Beloit, the first focus was our downtown. Pick a target and start there, instead of trying to reach out in 10 different ways. If everyone’s collaborating on that one aspect, then you can branch out. Start small, collaborate and grow from there.

El-Amin: For downtown, I would say dream big. Shoot for the moon and see if you can get it.

Bliss: Our relationship with the Greater Beloit Partnership is worth mentioning, as well. We spend so much time working together and collaborating, between the Downtown Beloit Association, the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation and Visit Beloit. We’re all working together, constantly, on the quality of life in Beloit.

Thurner: I think it’s one of the coolest things that the Greater Beloit Partnership gets together once a month to talk and to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and to brag about what we have going. I don’t think you see that in a lot of communities, where those four organizations – the downtown association, the economic development corporation, the visitors bureau and the Chamber – work so closely together.

Price: It’s easy to isolate yourselves when you want to compete versus collaborate. When you become isolated it becomes hard to function because a city doesn’t just function by itself. There are so many working parts to make a city thrive.