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History of Forward Janesville

National to Local: Chambers Emerge at All Levels

Chambers are at all levels of our economy. The US Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business organization representing three million businesses. Founded in 1912, the Chamber had the support of President Taft, who had hoped for a central voice to represent American interests in business.

At the state level, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is our state Chamber, led by Kurt Bauer. This organization was founded in 1911. Currently the WMC represents 3,700 employers and is the largest business trade association in the state.

The Commercial Club of Wisconsin was founded in 1918 and would eventually become the Janesville Chamber of Commerce, a precursor to Forward Janesville.

In the era of Forward Janesville's founding, dramatic change was happening in our nation, state, and area. Joseph A. Craig, President of Samson Tractor, was working to bring Samson to Janesville and merge with Janesville Machine Co. Craig worked to secure future contracts in the early years to ensure the plant survivability. Parker Pen was thriving and establishing practices to ensure the community was welcoming and inviting to their workers. City leaders reformed the way our city was managed, adopting the city manager system and hiring the now legendary Henry Traxler, who would put his personal print on this city through three decades of work transforming our city. The City would support and give the first million-dollar school referendum to JP Cullen to build Janesville High School. Women would receive the right to vote in 1919, and Janesville hired its first policewoman in 1921. Janesville business leaders were present and leading through this dynamic time.

Forward Janesville Emerges

Sixty years later, leaders began to see that times called for a different organization. In 1991, Janesville Economic Development Corporation and Janesville Area Chamber of Commerce were combined into one organization. An aggressive program called the New Beginnings Program was launched in partnership with the City of Janesville’s Economic Development Department. From 1994-95, the next phase of work began under the New Century Program to prepare Janesville for the 21st century and focus on retention and expansion of existing businesses with four main focuses: existing business growth and retention; downtown revitalization; education; and economic diversity. FJ raised two superfunds in its first decade of operations to fund these efforts.

The economic downtown turn of 2000 affected Janesville. Forward Janesville's membership, which had reached over 700, dropped to 450 by 2001. The organization focused efforts to rebuild and gained strength knowing that the GM issue was looming and that eventually the plant would close, forever changing the landscape of Janesville. On June 3, 2008, GM announced at its annual meeting that four plants would close, including Janesville, resulting in thousands of lives impacted, a documentary made, and a book written. But what direction would Janesville take? Today the Janesville community is writing its own book, and today Forward Janesville leaders continue to help write the next chapter.

Forward Janesville Key Activities & Current Economic Context

Today, Forward Janesville leads private sector economic and community development efforts to ensure the continued health and prosperity of business and industry in Janesville and Rock County. Janesville is a medium-size city with approximately 65,000 residents and the seat of the county government located south of Madison, WI. Janesville is included in the Janesville-Beloit MSA with a population of 160,000 which qualifies Janesville as a small city. Forward Janesville is a member-driven organization with over 500 members. The five main areas of focus to deliver on this mission are:

  • Member Services
  • Economic Development
  • Government Relations
  • Workforce and Education Assistance
  • Community Partnerships

Oakleigh Ryan, Interim President & CEO, leads a staff of four and works with a 20-member Board of Directors and dozens of active volunteers to accomplish Forward Janesville's mission. The organization focuses on the five strategic areas of focus as it works to represent the interests of the business community and support a healthy and growing economy.