Our TownPosted by admin on 3/22/11 • Categorized as Spring 2011
First, Beloit’s riverfront was transformed into green space and became a magnet for outdoor activities. Now, the energy is moving downstream to fuel a renaissance in Beloit’s city center. See before and after photos of the transformation, and a timeline of major downtown additions over the last decade.
By Lynn Vollbrecht’06
The photograph depicts a scene of tranquility: families loll among the trees on a sun-dappled expanse of green. Picnic baskets are propped open, dogs are playing on the grass, and the gazes of most are turned toward the shining river. A sailboat glides by. It’s just another sunny summer day in the city of Beloit’s Riverside Park.
Beloiters who have been gone for decades—or even for just a few years—may be surprised to learn that this bucolic scenario took place on the banks of the Rock River, right in the middle of the city of Beloit.
In 2006, a volunteer group called Friends of the Riverfront staged the recreation of A Sunday on La Grand Jatte, an 1884 painting by French artist Georges Seurat, who drew inspiration from Parisian parks. The Beloit version, called “Saturday in the Park with Friends,” intended to showcase the Rock River’s reanimation, a result of years of efforts to reclaim and highlight the city’s riverfront location.
Though the staging of the photograph was part of a planned event, the flurry of activity along the waterfront is real. People picnicking, walking their dogs, jogging, biking, paddling boats in the lagoon, and dancing in the Harry C. Moore Pavilion have become typical activities in the city’s 24-acre park. Now, the changes that began at the Rock River’s banks have spread, flooding Beloit’s city center with a newfound vitality that its champions hope to keep flowing.
For those who remember decrepit shacks lining the Rock River, or boarded up storefronts and empty buildings along downtown Beloit’s main streets, the positive changes in Beloit’s city center might seem abrupt, as if they happened overnight. But the transformation of Beloit’s downtown has been gradual and intentional, the result of hard work and the cultivation of good ideas from individuals, organizations, and corporations.
“We’ve seen a concerted effort on the part of our businesses to create places that welcome students, faculty, and staff of the college, so that they’re encouraged to come down the hill, engage in our downtown, and just hang out,” says Kathleen Braatz, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Beloit Association.
City Manager Larry Arft calls the changes in Beloit’s downtown “dramatic.”
“There are a lot of old, Midwestern industrial cities that were similar to Beloit that did not make it, that deteriorated dramatically and don’t have enough infrastructure left to make a go of it,” he says. “It’s not an automatic that an older industrial city can reinvent itself.”
Beloit’s past is not a place Allen-Bradley Professor of Economics Jeff Adams likes to dwell. He’s one of the original members of Beloit 2020 (formerly Beloit 2000), a civic group dedicated to the city’s revitalization.
“In 1988, there were some crises in the city,” Adams recalls. “We don’t even like to talk about this anymore. There is a danger in going back and saying ‘Well, you should’ve seen it then.’ That doesn’t do you any good.”
And giving up on Beloit when the going got rough was never an option anyway, Adams says, either for the college or for any number of other businesses and organizations whose futures are intertwined with the city.
In a 2010 address to the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, Beloit College President Scott Bierman described the city-college relationship in matrimonial terms. “We are in a marriage with this city, for better or for worse,” he said. “Through sickness and health, for the long haul. And we would have it no other way.”
In that spirit, Beloit 2020 and its predecessor, Beloit 2000, got to work to help make Beloit a better place. While Beloit 2000’s initial project was Riverside Park, whose first phase was dedicated in 1992, the current organization—composed of heads of local businesses, industries, and other parties with vested interests—has set its collective sights on the city center. The center is made up of nine districts along the Rock River. At the heart of those districts, nestled right up against one another, are Beloit College and downtown Beloit.