Janesville, Wisconsin is a small city of some 60,000 people located in the south-central region of the state, about 15 minutes north of the Illinois state line, and the county seat of Rock County. It’s also my hometown, for better or worse.
Founded in 1835 by a wandering pioneer who apparently enjoyed naming towns after himself, Janesville got its big break in 1919 when General Motors came to town, establishing a long-term presence of relatively high-paying blue collar jobs which the city has relied upon for decades of economic prosperity. Even throughout the latter portion of the 20th century and into the 21st century, Janesville has grown tremendously in spite of other corporation towns which went bust as the corporations left. Janesville’s neighbor to the south, Beloit, was one of these towns and has had a rockier road than Janesville, as manufacturing facilities left and right closed down leaving abandoned shells in their wake. During the middle of the 20th century, Beloit and Janesville were the same size and had roughly the same economic prosperity; but, as Beloit’s fortunes went away while Janesville had continued corporate investment by General Motors, peaking in the 1970s, Beloit’s growth stagnated while Janesville has more than doubled in size and as a result has become the dominant commercial center in the county. For now, that is.
The retail scene in Janesville and Beloit has always been heavily influenced by competition from neighboring larger cities, even Beloit, and this was further reinforced with the addition of the interstate highway system during the 1960s onward. Both Madison and Rockford are about 30 miles from Janesville, and are both easily accessible via interstate. Being larger cities, both Madison and Rockford offer shopping malls and strip areas with more variety in store selection than Janesville. Even Beloit was a formidable retail competitor from the 1960s into the early 90s, as the Beloit Mall was considered to be on-par or even better than the Janesville Mall until it skidded downhill to failure in the late 1990s. In addition, even more shopping possibilities exist considering both Milwaukee and Chicago are less than a two-hours drive away. As such, Janesville’s retail offerings have often been called slim for a city of its size; comparable cities in their own markets such as Wausau and LaCrosse have always had more significant retail offerings than Janesville. All of the above notwithstanding, Janesville’s primary retail market still reaches about 200,000 people; but, it wasn’t until the late 1990s before they didn’t have to drive long distances to shop.
For decades, the dominant retail area in Janesville was downtown. Like many other small manufacturing cities, downtown provided everything necessary for consumers, housing major chains like Kresge, Woolworth’s, JCPenney, and Sears, along with local department stores like Bostwick’s and small old-fashioned specialty stores of every kind. During the 1960s and 1970s, though, a new trend began sweeping across the country. As Janesville grew by leaps and bounds during the height of the manufacturing boom at General Motors, housing developments were constructed at an alarming pace in order to keep up with demand. Suddenly, downtown was too distant and less convenient to this new growth, and didn’t offer the variety of larger stores such as supermarkets and discount boxes which were popping up all over.
Most of this new growth occurred disproportionately to the north and east of downtown, near the interstate (90) which was constructed around Janesville in the early 1960s, connecting Seattle to Boston. The first major, modern style box store to come to Janesville was K-Mart, which opened at the corner of US 14 and Hwy 26, in 1967. At the time, this location was far from the edge of town, but it was also pivotal: it was near an access point to the recently completed I-90. Developers quickly realized the growth pattern of the city was moving in this direction, and as the 1970s progressed several more stores located to the Hwy 26/US 14 corridor in between what was then the edge of town and the interstate.
Janesville already had two ‘modern’ styled shopping centers which opened in the 1950s: Sunnyside Shopping Center on W. Court St/Hwy 11, and Creston Park Mall, located on Hwy 26 on what was then the edge of town. However, these small regional centers were being outmoded nationwide by large malls with huge department store anchors and many more stores, often in a climate-controlled environment functioning dually as retail center and community meeting place.
Following the lead of K-Mart, Creston Park Mall, recent residential growth, and the development of the interstate, local developer Roger Benjamin sought to build a strip mall featuring midwestern discount chain Welles in 1970 somewhere in northeast Janesville. His search brought him to the Milton Ave/Hwy 26 corridor between downtown Janesville and I-90, and his decision to locate there became the catalyst for Milton Ave/Hwy 26 to become the region’s major retail strip. He selected a parcel next to a site where Montgomery Ward was already building a store and the two ventures combined, deciding to build an enclosed mall between the two proposed anchors instead of a strip mall. Around the same time, Rockford-based department store Charles V. Weise signed on to be the middle anchor, and construction began on the $10 million mall in 1971.
During construction, however, a big problem arose. The parent company of Welles, the slated north anchor, abruptly went out of business in early 1973, leaving the mall high and dry only months before its slated opening. As a result, developers first approached Sears, who already operated a store in downtown Janesville, as well as one in nearby Beloit. Sears declined, citing success in both locations, so developers then approached JCPenney, who also operated a very small store in downtown Janesville. JCPenney realized the opportunity and accepted the offer, taking the north anchor, and Janesville Mall opened on schedule in September 1973.
The rest of the 1970s and 1980s proved to be enormously successful for Janesville Mall and its environs. During that time, the Milton Ave/Hwy 26/Hwy 14 strip filled in with numerous fast food outlets, strip malls, restaurants and boxes as the city’s population swelled by many thousands. The large mound of dirt behind the mall, created from digging the mall’s basement, became the city’s most popular sledding hill. A large strip mall called Janesville Plaza opened directly across from the mall, and big box retailers ShopKo (1980), Farm and Fleet, Menards (1984), Copps Department Store and Wal-Mart (1989) all opened in the general vicinity.
Anchor changes at Janesville Mall began in the mid-1980s, when Peoria-based Bergner’s acquired and rebranded the Weise’s division, first to Bergner-Weise and then finally Bergner’s around 1985. Also, about the same time, Montgomery Ward shut their Janesville Mall location in a round of nationwide closures, and Milwaukee-based Kohl’s, then a very small chain of department stores in southern Wisconsin, opened to fill the vacancy in one of their earliest major expansion moves. In addition, Janesville’s downtown riverfront Sears closed in 1986, setting the stage for a much-needed revival for Janesville Mall a decade later.
The change in anchors from Montgomery Ward to Kohls and from Weise’s to Bergner’s also became the catalyst for a much-needed mallwide renovation in 1986. The early 1970s look was removed during a top-to-bottom revamp, replacing the mall’s flooring, removing all the fountains, and adding new benches and even live fig trees.
Following the renovation, the early 90s began a tumultuous decade for Janesville Mall, beginning and ending in success with a dip of uncertainty in the middle. The 90s debuted with the reuse of the vacant Montgomery Ward Auto Center, opening as a Blockbuster Video in 1990 during that chain’s meteoric rise. I remember seeing their grand opening spotlights for many nights from my house several blocks away. In addition, an anchor shift occurred in 1992 when Bergner’s was rebranded Boston Store, in an effort to consolidate all of P.A. Bergner’s Wisconsin brands under one nameplate (They also owned Carson Pirie Scott, and are today all regional nameplates owned by Bon-Ton Inc.). The store was also remodeled during the rebranding. Meanwhile, retail elsewhere in Janesville continued to thrive during the early 1990s, as a new Target and Toys ’R’ Us opened in 1992 along with a large strip mall adjacent to ShopKo.
The early to mid 90s also began a shift not unique to Janesville Mall but also seen in many malls across the country, trending away from local chains and favoring national chain retailers. In fact, the main problem at Janesville Mall during the 1990s was the lag time between the local chains’ exit and the national chains’ entrance. There was a gap of no fewer than several years when the mall was alarmingly vacant and trouble seemed imminent. Local stores like That Boutique (women’s clothing), Baxter’s Menswear, J. Rundell’s, Hal’s, Saxer’s Sporting Goods, Bostwick’s, Mother’s Ice Cream and others disappeared, but there were relatively few national chains opening to replace them. Mall mainstay Thrift Drug, owned by JCPenney, closed in the mid 90s as well, around the same time that nameplate was retired in favor of Penney’s other brand, Eckerd drug. A few exceptions were clothing retailers Clothestime, Merry Go Round, and County Seat, which opened during this period, but for the most part stores either remained vacant or were a revolving door of failed ventures like the short-lived Cinnabon, which appeared in 1993-94, only to close almost immediately to be replaced by a local Pizza-by-the-slice joint which was equally short-lived. I recall visiting the mall frequently during this period (1992-1995) and noting many vacancies until about 1995-96, when things slowly, and then dramatically, shifted back to a period of success for Janesville Mall, which has lasted until the present.
After a period of low turnover and high vacancies, fortunes began to change at Janesville Mall with the arrival of a few very popular national chains. In 1995 and 1996, Software Etc. (now GameStop), Wilson’s Leather, Bath and Body Works, Finish Line and GNC arrived and got the ball rolling on a trend to attract chains which heretofore would have required a visit to either Madison’s or Rockford’s malls, a trip local residents were resigned to make given the meager local offerings.
The biggest boon to the late 90s resurgence of Janesville Mall was the addition of a two-level, 110,000 square-foot Sears as the fourth anchor store, which opened in late 1997 amid a mild controversy pitting Janesville and Beloit as rivals. The opening of Sears came about in 1996 as the Beloit Mall, some 15 miles south of Janesville, was experiencing difficulties of its own, due to a less wealthy economic base, smaller and less modern-feeling mall structure, and weird location in between heavy industrial buildings and small, older single family homes. However, the Sears in Beloit was one of the only businesses in the mall doing well, and had room for growth in its cramped location. It was then when Janesville Mall developers approached Sears and asked them to jump ship and leave Beloit Mall to open a brand new store at the Janesville Mall. So, despite a fierce letter-writing and petition campaign to keep the store in Beloit, Sears did leave Beloit and moved 15 miles north to a bigger, brand new store in a mall with better potential on the county’s best retail strip.
As soon as Sears opened, national chains that previously avoided Janesville suddenly clamored to open at the mall, and stores like American Eagle, Victoria’s Secret, Gymboree, and The Buckle soon followed suit. In 1998, Kohl’s renovated and expanded its store for the first time since it opened in the mid 1980s, annexing the Blockbuster Video/former Montgomery Ward Auto Center and several adjacent in-line stores in the mall. The entrance to Kohl’s was also moved to the corner of its store where it is more visible and accessible from the parking lot. It was rumored Kohl’s threatened to leave the mall and build a standalone store elsewhere in Janesville if the conditions for its expansion were not met. Blockbuster moved to a new standalone building in the mall’s parking lot, becoming the first and only parcel in the mall’s outlot. The mall was also minorly renovated during this time, removing what little character it had by taking away all the fig trees and revamping the center court area’s stage to a flat, tiled surface in order to fit a sea of kiosks in. Today, the entire mall corridor is one kiosk after another with almost no space in between them. Suddenly Janesville Mall became viable again due in large part to the reinvestment by Sears, making it the county’s top retail destination after a few sketchy years.
1998 also saw the opening of the largest shopping center in Janesville since the mall debuted in 1973, introducing many national chain box retailers to town. Called Pine Tree Plaza, this 400,000 square foot behemoth box center and strip mall, complete with outlots, redefined shopping in Janesville and for the first time a shopping trip out of town wasn’t as necessary. Included in Pine Tree Plaza’s debut were Wisconsin’s first Home Depot as well as Movies 10, Gander Mountain, TJMaxx, Staples, Shoe Carnival (closed and replaced by Famous Footwear in 2004), Old Navy, Petco and Michaels, with space for several small in-line stores and restaurants and outlots as well. As a result of the movie theatre opening, the small, dirty 3-screen cinemas in the Janesville Mall closed and was replaced by a Chuck E. Cheese franchise. Pine Tree Plaza and its outlots have grown even more popular since, with the addition of Starbucks, IHOP, Best Buy, Cold Stone Creamery and Pier One Imports.
The new millenium ushered in continued growth and prosperity for Janesville Mall, as more national chains appeared and the mall reached capacity for the first time since the 1980s. It was considered to be big news for the mall when Gap opened a 10,000 square-foot location in 2000, followed by stores like Aeropostale, Vanity, Pac Sun, and CJ Banks.
A semblance of a food court even appeared at Janesville Mall in the early 2000s, taking shape with a Sbarro, McSnack (an experimental limited-menu McDonalds which has since closed), Panda Express, Orange Julius, and recent-addition Kobe Japanese. Many people, especially kids growing up in Janesville, noted the absence of a food court as another reason to mock and ridicule the mall’s lack of ‘legitimacy’ - and now the mall officially recognizes this area as a food court, even though it’s really just a concentration of food stalls along the main concourse near the Kohl’s end, with tables and chairs set out. Prior to the food court, the mall’s meager food options were long-time tenant Diamond Dave’s, a decent sit-down Mexican restaurant, a cookie place (now closed), Hot Sam (also closed), Karmelkorn/Corn Crib (recently closed), Cream City Cafe inside Boston Store (closed), Mother’s Ice Cream (now Panda Express), A&W Hot Dogs and More (now Orange Julius), and long, long ago there was a restaurant inside Montgomery Ward which is obviously closed. In addition, for many years a full-sized regular food court was rumored for the vacant space in between Sears/The Buckle and the former cinemas, but this never came to fruition and since then the space has been occupied by Chuck E. Cheese. It should also be noted that a Regis Salon and a nail place are both in/near the ”food court” area, which is at least moderately offensive to the olfactory.
Today, the 600,000 square-foot Janesville Mall continues to thrive and attract popular mid-tier national chain offerings; most recently, Limited’s Justice brand as well as a Journeys have opened in the mall. The mall is limited moreso by space than by interested chains, which was not the case 15 years ago. Furthermore, most of the recent closings are due to corporate restructuring rather than sales at this specific location, such as the closure of both Sam Goody and Suncoast Video in 2006. In fact, the mall may have even become too big for its britches as many of the smaller, local retailers and service-oriented things appear to have opted to relocate outside the mall due to ever-increasing rents.
In addition, retail in and around Janesville continues to grow and change. The most recent changes have been the addition of a new Mega Menards, a new Super Wal-Mart, and a brand new Sam’s Club, all of which opened in 2007 and 2008. Replacing the old Wal-Mart was to be a Borders, Hobby Lobby, and Dollar Tree, but unfortunately Borders backed out and it’s currently Hobby Lobby, Dollar Tree, and a temporary Halloween Express store. Kind of sad, but nonetheless not shocking in the least. It is yet to be announced what will replace the old Menards, which has an excellent location yet less-than-stellar, squirrely access to the major arterials. Another problem I’ve seen along the Milton Ave/Hwy 26 strip in Janesville recently are the numerous “instant cash” quick-loan places, which appear to be present in Janesville moreso than I’ve seen anywhere else on earth. Awesome.
The Janesville Mall will continue to be a viable place as long as the local economy can support it, which actually wasn’t in question until very recently, when it was announced the lifeblood of Janesville, General Motors, was closing the factory it had operated for almost 90 years sometime before 2010. So, I guess we’ll watch what happens.
The pictures featured here were taken in March 2001 and July 2008. Not much really changed between these years, but they’re there anyway. As always, feel free to leave your comments and your own experiences with Janesville Mall here. And, most importantly, this is the mall I grew up going to the most, so I’d love to have some vintage pictures. Even pre-2000 pictures would be great. Feel free to contact me directly at any time if you want to send me stuff.