The Janesville area has the highest unemployment rate in Wisconsin; 13.5 percent. That's nearly triple what it was a year ago. The figure has been fueled by General Motors' decision to close its auto plant there. Some people appear to be leaving town as jobs evaporate, according to U-Haul Incorporated. Its records show that nearly 25 percent more people left Janesville than moved there during the first three months of 2009.
WUWM'S Bob Bach asked a few local businesses what they're noticing, and their observations about residents are not as glum.
Josh Rofburg is manager of South Side True Value Hardware in Janesville. The store isn't far from the sprawling GM plant, the longtime industrial goliath that now sits shuttered and silent. Rofburg says more than half his customers worked at the factory, or one of the satellite industries whose fortunes were linked to GM's. Rofburg says oftentimes former autoworkers rub elbows at his store, and their mood is surprisingly light-hearted.
"I would say that they are optimistic.I mean, there are a lot of people that are a little salty about everything that has happened but, at the same time, they don't let it get to 'em too much, especially not in the hardware store. They come in here and we've got the country music playing, and it's a pretty comfortable thing here. So what are some of the biggest sellers? Rental is the biggest thing. Everybody's getting their lawns going, their gardens going. Otherwise it's just those odds and ends like nuts and bolts. There's a lot of painting going on," Rofburg says.
Rofburg says many former autoworkers want to spiff up their houses, partly to keep busy, but also to protect their biggest investment. A few miles away, another business is busier than ever. Foremost Media has been around since 2001. The firm designs web pages and provides other internet services. Operations
President Jon Ballard says Foremost has grown about 90 percent over the last three years. It's been getting a lot of business from small, local enterprises, some of them brand new.
"You know we had a guy in the other day, he was laid off from General Motors and he was looking at starting up a fishing guide service for people coming out of Illinois, wanting to fish southern Wisconsin. Another company was in, they do stainless steel tanks for the dairy industry; they're a start up. Actually, we're dealing with another project. Janesville's getting a professional hockey team, like a double-a type hockey team. We're working on a web site for them right now which should bring some development and growth to the area," Ballard says.
Ballard says his company has about 200 clients in the Janesville area and there hasn't been any noticeable drop in business recently. He says despite the closing of the GM plant, the area still has a lot of appeal to people who prefer a smaller community in close proximity to rural Wisconsin.