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Monday, May 18, 2009

Developer: Janesville's future rests on renewable energy manufacturers

From "Helgesen wants to fill space with jobs for Janesville" by Jim Leute posted on GazetteXtra.com:

JANESVILLE — Jeffrey Helgesen’s life is all about challenges.

His two sons from a first marriage are Navy SEALs. One just returned from his third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the other remains in Iraq.

His father, with whom he’s had a rocky relationship, suffers from dementia.

And the developer’s largest Janesville tenant has flown the coop, leaving Helgesen with a massive hole in his commercial real estate portfolio.

One challenge after the next, he worries about them all.

But before you start feeling bad for Helgesen, don’t, he says.

He’s happily remarried and spends a lot of time at his summer home in Menomonee, Mich., a perfect port to launch his 52-foot “Gaudior” on extended sailing trips across the Great Lakes.

His relationship with his father, legendary Janesville businessman Don Helgesen, is better than it’s been in decades.

And that empty 700,000-square-foot building on Janesville’s south side?

It’s been cleaned, repainted, outfitted with energy-efficient lighting and heating fixtures and stands ready for tenants that Helgesen hopes will build alternative energy components and provide good jobs to the local economy.

LSI, a just-in-time supplier to the Janesville General Motors plant, ended its lease of the 10-year-old building on Venture Drive in December.

With LSI supplying a struggling auto industry, Helgesen knew he was on shaky ground with just one tenant in the huge building. Not enough eggs in one really large basket, he says.

The LSI building accounts for nearly 58 percent of the 1.2 million square feet Helgesen leases in Janesville. . . .

Helgesen, a frequent player in the city’s tax increment finance districts, would like to lease the space to alternative energy manufacturers. He’d also accommodate distribution or warehousing operations.

“The reality is that we’ve lost so many manufacturing jobs because of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” he says. “High fuel costs brought some of them back, but unfortunately our wage rates and health care have priced us out of the market.

“What’s left for us is everyone else’s crumbs; we’re a distributor of other people’s products.”

Janesville’s future, Helgesen believes, rests largely on companies that will manufacture components for renewable energy markets.

He’s watched cities like Newton, Iowa, and Wisconsin Rapids land companies and jobs in the alternative energy industries.

“I’m always pushing our people and the economic development people on this,” he says. “Why can’t we get those contracts? Those communities got over the idea that they were somehow going to maintain a dynasty industry forever.

“It’s just not going to happen, and that’s why I’m hammering the solar and wind thing.”

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