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(Janesville, WI) By Neil Johnson, Gazette

A Janesville couple plan to bring life back to a set of dilapidated South River Street storefronts the city not long ago had considered buying and tearing down to build a parking lot.

There's plenty of dust from demolition, but it's all inside two side-by-side, brick and wood-frame buildings at 22-24 S. River St. at the corner of River and Dodge streets just west of the Rock River.

Owners Travis and Jennifer O'Connell said that when work's done, the five adjoined buildings on the mini-block will remain standing. For years they housed the former Town and Country restaurant.

In the months to come, the Janesville couple plan to repair the facades of all the storefronts and renovate the two farthest south buildings to create Industry Gastropub, a tavern, microbrewery and restaurant serving fresh, locally-sourced food.

A consultant is working on project designs. It would be "self-funded," the owners said, but the buildings are in a historic district and the renovations would be subject to approval by the city plan commission and city council.

The O'Connell's, both Janesville natives, own and have renovated several downtown properties through their construction/redevelopment firm, Legendary Construction.

The couple plan to renovate apartment spaces in the properties' upstairs. The goal, the couple said, would be to bring commerce and people back to an area that the city considers an entryway for a future river walk, park and pedestrian mall downtown.

“We wanted to create a place where people will want be, not just a location--a bar and a restaurant--but a place that's part of a downtown atmosphere where people will want to go and walk around with their families,” Travis O'Connell said.

The properties are across South River Street from the vacant lot where the former Plaza Furniture store once stood.

Earlier this year, the city had bought and demolished the former Plaza Furniture and a small building attached to it, clearing the lot and staking it as a future city park and ground zero for ARISE, the city's plan to revitalize parts of downtown along the Rock River.

The O'Connells bought the properties in 2014, a purchase that came as the city had tried to set up a cash buy of the property through negotiations that City Manager Mark Freitag pushed into open public session at city council meetings.

The First Community Bank of Milton was trying to sell off the properties, which it bought out of foreclosure in a sheriff's sale for $320,000 and were appraised at $330,000.

At the time, the property had QT's Bar and Banquet running out of 24 S. River St., and the building hadn't been renovated in years.

Freitag at the time said he hoped the city's bid would lead to demolition of the properties to build more parking near downtown, or that it would entice a caliber of buyers who'd be more motivated than past owners to fix up the dilapidated storefronts.

The strategy drew criticism from some council members and served to pump up the sale price from early bids of $150,000 to more than $270,000.

O'Connell said he'd been in talks with the bank over the property even before the city had touched off a bidding war, and he hung in to close on the building at $279,000, according to property tax records.

It sold for far below the $475,000 sale price when the property changed hands in 2006.

The couple transferred the ownership of the liquor license earlier this year, after QT's closed, and their plans for renovation began to unfold as the city began galvanizing early stages of the ARISE plan near the property.

The couple said the bar would have an industrial-modern look, relaxed and casual atmosphere, and it would separate dining areas for families and a restaurant and lunch diner side that would prepare local, fresh food ingredients out of an open-air kitchen.

The property would house a small-batch microbrewery in the back and would serve house-brewed beers along with local and domestic beers on tap.

The building would show off its original brick and woodworked walls that have for years been covered by plaster. Its décor is planned to reflect and celebrate the city's industrial history, Jennifer O'Connell said.

She pointed to the plaster dust on the floor beneath Cream City brick walls in the gutted space where a new bar and large-group seating is planned.

“I come and here and see more and more of what is underneath. And I keep saying, 'It's perfect. It's beautiful.' To me, it will be,” she said.

Just east is the aging downtown parking plaza over the Rock River. City planning officials had slated removal of the crumbling, 144-stall plaza in summer 2016, and had touted the project as the first volley of the city taking the lead in launching ARISE.

A consultant's estimate released by the city last month suggests that tearing out of the plaza and shoring up the seawalls beneath could cost $3.1 million. 

Some city officials warned of a shortfall in grant funding that could help pay for the plaza tear out, and suggested the work could get delayed until 2017.

The O'Connells said they're not sure if investors or property owners would worry about the city backpedaling from immediate work on the parking plaza.

Travis O'Connell, who has fixed up properties downtown for two decades, said private re-investment is getting a foothold along the riverfront. He pointed across the river to the former Rock County Appliance, which a private owner is redeveloping as a banquet hall.

“People are starting to see what the future here could look like. It takes time,” he said.

He said private reinvestment and city plans might not always mesh, but he believes change can come to downtown while keeping its fiber intact.

O'Connell gestured above the to the storefront that will house Industry Gastropub, to a bay window he plans to rebuild. 

“You can build a parking deck a lot of places. But you've got to have a place to go after you park,” he said. “If buildings like these are gone, you can't really replace them.”

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