‘Don’t worry about them – the rest of us feel great!

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

A doctor walks into a town of one-hundred people, and finds that half of them are pale, feverish, and vomiting blood. The physician calls out to a community leader, “Send for help, you have an epidemic on your hands.” The community leader replies, “Oh no, don’t worry about them – the rest of us feel great!”

There one sees the self-regard and self-promotion of some, while ignoring the condition of others.

Over at the Janesville Gazette, that paper’s editorialist feebly tries to divert attention from the fundamental problems of his community, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports them (and as cited at FW on Tuesday. See Contrast). First a portion of Rock County’s many struggles, then highlights from the Janesville editorialist’s reply —

Reporting from the Journal Sentinel (‘Wisconsin childhood trauma data explodes myth of ‘not in my small town’):

Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Rock County falls into the highest tier of overdose deaths, hospitalizations and emergency room visits linked to opioids and heroin, as ranked by state health authorities….

Once solidly middle-class Rock County today harbors the state’s highest scores for childhood trauma, the deepest plunge in income since the turn of the century, and one of the most extreme drug epidemics.

Of the state’s 72 counties, Rock County is home to the fourth-highest share of single-parent households (17.6%) behind Menominee, Milwaukee and Kenosha counties (28%, 23% and 18.4%, respectively). In the last 20 years, households in the county accepting FoodShare entitlements rose 310%. In the last 15 years, childhood poverty surged 150%, the second fastest increase in the state. The rate at which babies in the county are born with opioids, heroin or other addictive drugs in their bodies more than tripled from 2013 to 2016.

“Soon, we’ll have a whole generation of grade school kids who all have in common a parent who overdosed and died of heroin,” said Janesville police officer Justin Stubbendick. “It breaks my heart to think”….

Editorial reply from the Gazette (‘Our Views: Outsiders get the region’s story wrong again‘):

….This is the sort of one-dimensional portrayal of the region we’ve come to expect from outsiders (Mother Jones magazine did the same thing in 2009). It’s a cliché to characterize Janesville in a downward spiral since the closing of the GM plant nearly a decade ago. It’s a cliché, too, to dismiss the expansions of other manufacturers, the region’s surging tax base and downtown Janesville revitalization efforts.

To be sure, this region has many challenges—heroin being one of them—but these gloomy narratives emerge only by their authors ignoring positive developments….

W.W. Grainger on Janesville’s east side has hired hundreds of employees over the past two years and recently began in-house leadership training programs to help employees advance in the company.

Dollar General’s distribution warehouse has hired hundreds of workers, and while it doesn’t pay GM union levels, workers average $16 to $17 an hour to start, according to company hiring fliers.

Plastics company GOEX is in the process of expanding its warehousing and clean room facilities on the city’s north side to meet booming demand in markets it serves.

In southern Rock County, Pratt Industries opened a $52 million box plant this year.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation remains committed to the Interstate 90/39 expansion project, even as the agency has shelved other Interstate projects (including in the Journal Sentinel’s own backyard). Officials have made I-90/39 a top priority because they recognize the corridor’s and this region’s economic importance….

We refuse to allow pockets of instability to define us. The Journal Sentinel piece is a reminder that we as a community must take responsibility for telling our own story, especially if outsiders seem bent on casting this region as a failure.

1. Outsiders! Many have written serious critiques of Janesville, including Pulitzer winner Amy Goldstein, but they’re mere outsiders to the editorialist. (At least he refrained from calling them rootless cosmopolitans.) These many and solid critiques are all from Americans: established, serious, thoughtful, relying on actual conditions of thousands of local residents.

So provincial is the Gazette that Milwaukee – part of the same state, not far at all from Janesville, is somehow a distant land. There’s wagon-circling, and then there’s this: a small-minded, xenophobic rejection of anything outside the county.

2. Parachuting! Easier said than being able to refute a single statistic JS reporter John Schmid offers. Truly, the Gazette‘s editorialist doesn’t refute any of the statsitics about Rock County’s troubled state – instead, he implores readers to look at the positive.

The supposedly positive (as the editorialist sees it) has not, and will not, compensate those who are now suffering for their actual hardships.

What does it profit a family to gain an interstate if it shall endure childhood poverty? What does it profit a family to gain a nearby warehouse if they struggle with addiction?

These supposed achievements have not brought widespread community uplift. They’ve brought, instead, leaders’ self-serving entreaties to accentuate the positive. (“Look, we have a box plant! Over here, pay attention!”)

Developments that allow a large underclass to grown within a city serve to distract from actual suffering to the benefit of aged leaders’ vanity and pride.

3. Refuse…to define us. These aged self-promoters – whose public lives have witnessed only community decline – have no power to define. Their refusals mean nothing – they’re too weak, too dense, too selfish to persuade anyone except a small number of that same ilk.

These few are not, even now, writing the story of their community. It’s written by men and women more thoughtful, more persuasive, more principled.

In any event, the future will write the history of the present. It will be harsh with the anything like the editorialist’s outlook.

That will prove true in small & beautiful, yet struggling, Whitewater, the city from which one daily views the world beyond.

Hotel Preliminaries

local scene

Whitewater’s full-service grocery closed in 2015, and then the UW-Whitewater Foundation bought the property. (Premier Bank, successor to Commercial Bank, has a 5% interest in the property.) A developer from Minnesota, having been unsuccessful in a project near the center of town, now proposes purchasing the former grocery building & lot, and constructing a Fairfield Marriott on the property, while renovating the existing (now empty) grocery building (meeting space, office space, etc.).

Because the developer wants two buildings on the lot, he (through the existing owners) sought conditional use approval for his plan. Conditional use approval leaves many details left unaddressed, but it was a necessary first step.

A few remarks.

1. City of Whitewater obligations. If it should be true that Whitewater will incur no expenses for studies, water main relocations, or other costs – that these will be borne by the parties – then the project is of limited concern. There is no reason that the residents of this city should subsidize a hotel, but if they’ve not the burden of subsidizing one, then let the private parties do what they want.

If the UW-Foundation and Premier bank want to sell, with the expectation of a donation of a portion back later, let them. They are not unsophisticated parties – they should be free to buy and sell as they wish. If the deal goes bad, the risk would be (and should be) theirs alone.

2. Building on the lot. The parties want two buildings on the lot, but if they should want three or thirty, I’d not stop them. Practicality is a greater constraint than law. Many uses are permitted, but only some succeed.

3. Building height. There’s a funny moment when the city planner recognizes that the planned height of the hotel is 45′ not 145′. It’s true that a project of this size would not be 145′ high, but that’s not what’s funny. What’s funny is the idea that a 145′ building would be too tall for Whitewater.

Why? There are much worse things than a tall, privately-constructed building.

4. Economic benefits. This session was about whether the applicants would be granted conditional use approval. Along the way, the developer included a supposed list of economic gains. Much of it is simply unsupported, and looks suspiciously like grandiose claims meant to impress gullible or over-eager residents.

If these parties are spending their own money, and not burdening this city, then the economic benefits are their private matter. There is something risible, however, about reading the same boilerplate used elsewhere that’s meant to impress, but impresses only the ignorant or weak-minded.

It would have been faster for the parties to call residents of the city gullible than to waste time typing unsupported economic claims. (Much faster: gullible is only one word, while the developer’s memo, beginning at memo paragraph three in the packet below, uses 325 words for its economic claims.)

5. Gratitude. There’s an unfortunate moment midway in this discussion, when the council member on the Planning Commission tells the developer that “well, we’ve been hoping for a new hotel for a long time, so we’re grateful for, I would say, I’m grateful for the effort that you’re putting into this proposal…”

When one has told the developer that one is grateful for the effort, the developer understandably gets the signal that oversight will be minimal. Now, I’m not so concerned about oversight as long as this city’s residents aren’t paying for the project. Still, from a regulatory perspective – as required by law – expressions of gratitude are hardly a signal of scrutiny in the public interest.

6. Devil’s in the details. There’s another meeting of Planning Commission in October….

The 9.11.17 Plannning Commission packet, with agenda and relevant part (Item 9), appears below —

Download (PDF, 3.37MB)

Waste Hauling Into Whitewater

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 75 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

A few years (and seventy-five posts) ago, I began consideration of a local proposal to haul waste into Whitewater. Those posts became a series, with background work and discussions with people from across Wisconsin.

Last night, Whitewater announced publicly the results of a study on whether a supposed initial waste hauling plan might be feasible, using the Baker Tilly firm. The municipal government commissioned the study in March 2016, and the firm returned an opinion to the city in October 2016 that it would be infeasible.

I used the months since last year’s commissioning to read yet more, speak with others outside the city, and simply wait for the next local development. It seemed prudent to use the time patiently and productively.

The single most important result for our city is that this plan to haul waste into Whitewater will not go forward. That’s the right outcome for this community, and today this city is better off for the decision of her common council, and announcement of her city manager, to end the project.

Locally, I’ve sometimes been asked what I think of this city staff’s support for the project. It’s fair to say that there is a fundamental disagreement on the science of the project. Now or ten years from now, the case against waste hauling into Whitewater will rest on sound fiscal, economic, and environmental bases. Should a proposal arise again, as one heard predicted last night, one may be assured that the case against will be as strong, and fought even more vigorously.

I’ll not take the course of the wastewater superintendent and extend the local discussion gracelessly even at its conclusion; pride is a poor foundation for policy.

Each day one meets the world anew.

Many thanks to so many in town who were encouraging. We’ve a lovely town.

To those from across Wisconsin with whom I have productively corresponded & met, and from whom I have received analyses, studies, and sound insight: I am indebted to you. There are visits eagerly to be made, with correspondence and calls until we see each other again. There’s so much good work that you can and will carry out. You’ve your own efforts ongoing in your communities, and of course you’ve an ally here in all that you do.

It’s mild in Whitewater today: a good day, I think, for residents in this small and beautiful city.

The Parts of A Multi-Part Project


There’s been talk in Whitewater about an out-of-town developer’s plan for a hotel, library, and a local clinic.

The easiest way to consider the project is to ask a simple question:

Is there any part of the project without which the entire effort would not go forward?

Identifying an indispensable part, if any, reveals the essence of the project and the priority among its elements.

Afterward, a follow-up:

Does any party to the project have a non-negotiable position about the proper location of the project?

The answers to these questions will offer the most accurate description of the proposal.

Reading and Reviewing

There are two books I’m eager to review here at FW: Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016) and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story (4.18.17).  Like many others, I’ve been awaiting Goldstein’s book for some time, knowing that significant works take time.

For both books, I’ll proceed with a chapter-by-chapter assessment. I’ve the luxury of taking my time, for two principal reasons: first, blogging allows a self-chosen pace; second and more significantly, both books are worthy of detailed reviews.

There is a third reason, too, and particular to Whitewater:  this city’s local policymakers have a position so weak that their particular maneuverings are of little value. For them, unfortunately, it’s the fate of a grinding attrition for the near future. These political few, and those who have been part of this small group over the last generation, will have little part in whatever successful short-term events Whitewater sees.

A sensible, productive person would stay as far away as possible.  This class is, with a few exceptions, composed of individually capable people who’ve collectively thrown away capability. See, Whitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way). A political critique of Whitewater is now less a matter of advocacy as it is a recollection and narration of cumulative political errors.

The better approach for the city is a true private charity and a true private industry, unconnected to political policy. See, An Oasis Strategy.

Of Whitewater’s local politics, what once seemed to me primarily a matter of advocacy grew to seem more like a diagnosis, and now seems like epidemiology.

There’s a history to be written about all of this, incorporating particular projects into a bigger work, but for now it’s a greater pleasure to consider what others have written.

I’ll start Wednesday, and continue chapter by chapter, taking time with it all.

Gentrification Requires the Right Social Conditions

I’ve written that Whitewater faces a choice between decisive action now (to lessen government’s role) or years of stagnation and relative decline before eventual gentrification (at which point longtime residents will have almost no say in redevelopment). See, How Big Averts Bad. As I doubt Whitewater’s local political class has the will for near-term changes, the best option during this long period will come from community-based, non-governmental initiatives and businesses. See, An Oasis Strategy.

Yet even an eventual, rejuvenating gentrification requires more than inexpensive, dilapidated properties to rehabilitate. Emily Badger makes this clear in How to Predict Gentrification: Look for Falling Crime: some minimal social conditions have to exist before risk takers are willing to commit to a community.

She writes (admittedly about cities, not towns) that

“But a huge piece of it,” she [Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University] said, “I think is crime.”

New research that she has conducted alongside Keren Mertens Horn, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Davin Reed, a doctoral student at N.Y.U., finds that when violent crime falls sharply, wealthier and educated people are more likely to move into lower-income and predominantly minority urban neighborhoods.

Their working paper suggests that just as rising crime can drive people out of cities, falling crime has a comparable effect, spurring gentrification. And it highlights how, even if many Americans — including, by his own words, President-elect Donald Trump — inaccurately believe urban violence is soaring, the opposite long-term trend has brought wide-ranging change to cities.

Needless to say, small-town Whitewater’s problem is not urban crime (we’re not an urban area). There is, however, a level of division in the city along lines of cultural identity that is discernible to anyone observing the town with clear eyes, and that cannot be papered over with false contentions of town-gown harmony. The last thirty years have seen an increase in the size of our local campus, but city is still widely divided, and attempts at cultural harmony have gone nowhere as far as one might hope.

Lack of town-gown harmony is Whitewater’s analog to urban crime: it’s a cultural reason some people will (sadly) avoid the city.

Fixing this division will not come from public spending, nor public enforcement efforts, nor public relations. It will come, if it does, from private cultural, charitable, and business efforts.

The Local Economic Context of It All

localOver a generation, Whitewater’s big-ticket public spending (where big ticket means a million or more per project in a city of about fifteen-thousand) has come with two, often-contradictory justifications: (1) that residents needed to spend so much because Whitewater was the very center of things, or (2) that residents needed to spend so much to assure that Whitewater would keep up (something hardly necessary for a city that was already the very center of things).   Over the last thirty years’ time, the city’s residents have spent hundreds of millions on public projects.

(This tiny town might have saved up enough over the last thirty years to buy a gently-used B-2 bomber.  New ones go for $700 million each, but a used one would be less, and no one – no one – ignores a city with a genuine B-2.  Nearby towns like Palmyra or Fort Atkinson wouldn’t be laughing if Whitewater had its own strategic bomber.)

We also have a public university in town, supported with hundreds of millions in state funds spent to keep the campus going.  The claim that the state doesn’t reimburse the city for the full cost of services in a university town skirts the clear truth that the university brings more to the city than she costs.

One hears now from town officials what any reasonable person would have surmised years ago: that the City of Whitewater and Walworth County are low-growth communities (“we do not have a lot of growth like a lot of communities, like the those adjacent to Madison or Milwaukee”).    That’s disappointingly right – Whitewater is a low-growth community, as is Walworth County.

And yet, and yet, much of this spending was meant to spur growth, either to catapult Whitewater to new heights or assure her supposed position in the stratosphere.  Despite all that’s been spent, here Whitewater is – belatedly but admittedly – economically stagnant.

If proximity to Milwaukee or Madison were the key to success, and if (as is true) Whitewater’s still at the same place on the map as a generation ago, then why did anyone bother touting the city for all these years?

It’s because neither vast public spending for a small town nor proximity to Milwaukee & Madison were assurances of economic success.  It’s because public spending on whatever comes along accomplishes little, nothing, or worse than nothing (worse than nothing – that is, both stagnation and debt).   It’s because closeness to Milwaukee or Madison is not necessary for success.  (There was a time when policymakers insisted we would succeed precisely because we were relatively close to those bigger cities; now, when this town is obviously struggling, the same distance to the same destinations has become an excuse.)

We’ve reached – and we reached them long ago, really – the limits of public spending as a so-called catalyst for private growth.  It’s not impossible that such schemes might initially work elsewhere, but it’s next to impossible that more public money in a small town already saturated with public money will achieve solid, sustainable growth for residents.

American prosperity rests on private enterprise and initiative.   A useful project over the next few months will be to outline ways to liberalize Whitewater’s economy.

Small Towns in America Can Thrive

I posted recently about James Fallows’s Eleven Signs That a City Will Succeed.

(See, from FW, James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 1) and an assessment of those signs for Whitewater, James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 2).)

In the video below, James & Deborah Fallows talk about how (comparatively) smaller cities in different parts of the country are thriving. It’s a brief video, but from it one might be led to a deeper, if different, assessment of how a community can succeed.

Of this point one may be certain: it never was, and it never will, be true that boosterism brings lasting success to a community. 

I’m not convinced, absent more information, exactly why these towns are succeeding, but I’ve no doubt that America’s future is bright nationally, and can be bright locally, too.

The job market in the United States is constantly shifting—especially in small towns that were once totally reliant on large factories for jobs. While politicians focus on failing industries, things looks different from the local perspective. Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows and contributing writer Deborah Fallows travelled to Pennsylvania, California, and Kansas to understand what transformations were happening in various industries. “These perceived weaknesses are actually our strength,” says one young resident of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Via The Atlantic.

Culture, Economy, Fiscal

The approximate number of working age adults, from 25-64, in the City of Whitewater proper is 4,134.

This working age population is nestled among a total, estimated population of 14,801.

See, American Community Survey, 2010-2014, 5 year estimates http://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/14_5YR/DP05/1600000US5586925.

One can draw three broad but reasonable conclusions from these numbers.

Culturally, local publications present a skewed view of the city, in which one would think Whitewater is older, and more middle class, than her whole population truly is.

Residents eager to advance this impression will typically include nearby (but non-city) residents in local accounts, to fortify the impression of the city as one with a predominant, working-age middle class.

Economically, however, it’s clear that the cultural presumption of a unified community on either side of the city’s borders is false.

If there were genuine commonality between the city proper and neighboring towns, we would have a larger and more robust local economy. Instead, many of our neighbors shop and seek entertainment outside the city, and have done so for years.

So much time has been spent pushing the idea of One City, One View, One Future, so to speak, that when transactions go wrong cocooned local residents are surprised: How did this happen? Are we not huge and robust? Who knew?

We’re beautiful and precious, but we’re neither huge nor robust.

A word of support and distinction, here, meant genuinely: I’ve often been critical of much of the Community Development Authority’s work, but one can see (and hear if one listens) that some of those gentlemen have understood the challenges Whitewater faces. Their solutions are not mine, to be sure, but I’ve no doubt that some of them (including Messrs. Knight and Kachel) can and do assess accurately the difficulties Whitewater faces. Neither their intellect nor perseverance is in doubt.

It’s an ancient truism to say that men and women make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. Community development in Whitewater – broadly understood – has been dealt a difficult hand.

By contrast, the presentation of policy (as apart from community announcements) that one reads in the Daily Union or Banner evinces scarcely even a sketchy grasp of actual, challenging conditions. It’s all deceptively comforting, but that sort of comfort is ephemeral. 

To paraphrase a line from The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick Whitewater’s Old Guard ever pulled was convincing people that local problems don’t exist.  

Time takes her toll, far more effectively than any written reply. She’s not rhetorical, but she is instead quietly, coldly unforgiving.

This leads to Whitewater’s municipal fiscal condition. The working-age base on which the city rests isn’t especially large, and the risk of significant, infrastructure capital spending is that it will produce too little in return. The risk of revenue schemes is that they will either cost too much, produce too little even if we had the initial resources, or degrade local conditions for the state of local government’s appetite for revenue. 

Shared revenue is a weak substitute for local production.

There’s a way in which excessive local spending will do to Whitewater what it has done to other, far larger places: hollow out the city and drive more people to nearby towns.

I’m sure nearby towns are nice places to live, but I would not find any of them half so desirable as living in the city. I’d not trade residency in the city for elsewhere. 

I hope we attract many more residents. Effective attraction requires more than a publisher’s optimism.

Fiscal policies that overburden residents, or revenue schemes like waste-importation that degrade conditions so that prospective residents choose other places to live will always be the wrong policies.

Four thousand one hundred and thirty-four is not a big number, but that’s what makes it a big indicator. 

The Middle Time, Part 2 

Over two years ago, I described Whitewater as being in a ‘middle time,’ between former conditions and future ones:

While Whitewater is in a time of transition, from one way of life to a more diverse and prosperous one, she is only at the ‘end of the beginning’ of that transition.  

It’s a middle time now, and if one were to think of this as chess, one would say we’re in the middle game.  As with chess, the boundaries of that middle time are often nebulous, and are hard to define.  

This is still my assessment, very much so. The chances of the immediate past (the last decade or so) enduring relatively unchanged (as they might in a stable community) strike me as astonishingly small. I’m more confident of this assessment with each passing season.

A fair estimate was, and is, that this middle time will last for years.

But now one can offer a guess about two courses that this middle time may take, on the way to a more prosperous future: we may see limited growth until significant internal change, or we may see stagnation (and thus relative decline) until external change through something like gentrification.

On the end of either path we’ll be better off economically, but for longtime residents the futures will prove different: in the former current residents will be (or at least could be) significant players; in the latter they’ll have limited influence (as ‘something like gentrification’ is very much an outside force).

The latter also involves a decline in asset values before a rebound, so it necessarily involves a less desirable path to a future prosperity.

Doing what we have been doing, under this assessment, assures only a harder time until a better time.  

One other point seems clear to me: government intervention to produce positive economic results seems more difficult than ever. A better local economy requires gathering demand, and we’ve seen demand shift outward from the city, not inward.

Culturally, some non-college residents in the city see themselves as kindred spirits with non-college residents in nearby, smaller towns, but that kinship shows no evidence of guaranteeing a common economy.  

If anything, efforts to boost municipal revenue are only likely to exacerbate a city-towns divide, either by taxing city residents too much, or by pushing revenue-generation schemes that will degrade the quality of life in the city. 

This last point is worth considering at greater length another time, but it’s evident that some elected and appointed officials view the city, so to speak, as a closed ecosystem.  

If there’s one thing a college town is not, it’s that it’s not a closed ecosystem. That hasn’t, however, stopped one politician too many from thinking this way. 

Grocery Preliminaries (Part 3)

I’ve written a bit about the search for a grocery in Whitewater, but admittedly it has not been a principal topic for me.

That’s not because I don’t think a grocery or co-op would be nice to have; it’s because I know it’s hard to sustain one. Retail grocers (independent ones most notably) operate under demanding, difficult market conditions. 

It doesn’t matter how much some residents now want a grocery – it’s not easy to attract one. Sentry’s owners, after all, tried for years to find a buyer. What matters is whether sufficient numbers of residents can be expected to patronize regularly a grocery. Not enough did so previously.

I’m surely no booster of local government, and I’d surely rather not see public money for a grocery, but it’s wildly mistaken for some to contend that this should have happened by now, as though with a snap of one’s fingers.  The expectation & implication that this should have been wrapped up already is, to put it mildly, misguided

It’s significantly harder to attract or run a grocery than it is to fill one’s cart while walking down the aisles.

City Press Release on Grocery Store Recruitment, 7.21.16

Update: the press release was changed during the day from its original wording, as indicated below.

Posted immediately below is the full and unaltered text of a City of Whitewater press release on recruitment of a grocery store. Needless to say, I don’t represent the city, but it’s fair to pass along the complete municipal press release —

Press Release
Grocery Store Recruitment Update
July 21, 2016

Daniels’ Sentry Foods closed its doors for the last time in December 2015. Since that time, the Whitewater Common Council and Community Development Authority (CDA) have been rigorously engaged in efforts to recruit another grocery store in Whitewater.

As part of the City’s efforts, the CDA commissioned Chuck Perkins, a respected marketing consultant in the grocery sector, to conduct a grocery market analysis in order to identify various locations for a new store, as well as clarify a store size the Whitewater community could support. Based upon his market analysis, Mr. Perkins indicated that a smaller store located at the site of the now vacant Daniels’ Sentry Foods building has the greatest opportunity for long-term success. Shortly after the completion and release of the market analysis report, the City of Whitewater was contacted by an independent grocer interested in potentially locating a store in the community.

Since the first contact with the interested grocer, city officials and staff have been working closely with the potential grocer to develop a plan which would allow for the establishment of a new grocery store in Whitewater. As of Tuesday, July 19, both parties have verbally agreed to a tentative framework that provides for a grocery operation to be located at the site of the former Daniels’ Sentry Foods.

Earlier this year, the UW-Whitewater Foundation, in an effort to address UW-Whitewater space needs on campus, submitted a formal offer to purchase the Daniels Sentry property. Their offer has been accepted and a lease agreement for use of the space awaits confirmation by the UW System Board of Regents.

Due to the University’s need for additional space to allow for campus growth and the public’s need for a grocery store to bolster the Whitewater economy, the City is actively seeking to create a mutually beneficial solution that would allow for a grocery store to locate in the former Daniels’ Sentry building while still addressing the long-term space needs of the University.

Residents interested in expressing their sentiment on this issue can contact the Common Council directly at commoncouncil@whitewater-wi.gov. or contact the UW-Whitewater Chancellor at kopperb@uww.edu Substituted text: Comments submitted will also be shared with UW-Whitewater Foundation and UW-Whitewater officials.

Questions or concerns regarding grocery recruitment efforts can be directed to Patrick Cannon, CDA Director, pcannon@whitewater-wi.gov, 262-473-0148 or to Cameron Clapper, City Manager, cclapper@whitewater-wi.gov, 262-473-0100.

Grocery Preliminaries (Part 2)

I wrote yesterday about a grocery in town, in a post entitled, Grocery Preliminaries.  The post’s subject line used the word ‘preliminaries’ because it seems likely that Whitewater will get a new grocery, whatever one thinks of a public subsidy to entice one.  

In this way, that post presumed a deal, and so was meant to be preliminary to one.

(Needless to say, whatever the challenges of subsidizing a grocery, it’s noting like importing trash into the city as a get-revenue-quick scheme.  Waste importation is a truly bad idea, destructive to the environment, health, and development of the city.)

One of the conditions for a new grocery at the old Sentry location is that the university’s interest in the property  (as a term of art and a general desire for expansion) be satisfied.  

It’s worth noting that unpublished discussion of UW-Whitewater’s interest in the property has percolated through parts of the community for months; it’s not new information for everyone.  

This only reinforces, however, the point from an earlier post, Informed Residents, about the need for open government.

This morning, many residents are sure to be surprised  (‘the university has a connection to this property?’) and a few will be frustrated  (‘why didn’t we know?’ & ‘is the university standing in the way of a deal?’).

These are merely elements of a transaction, and they could have been disclosed sooner.  This community needs neither confusion about a project nor frustration with the university over it. 

I know that open government seems soft and starry to some, but it’s neither. Open government is both a principled (as a right) and a prudent (as a practical) approach.  It’s not in opposition to realism, but rather a higher expression of realism, embodying as it does the recognition that information typically wills out, at a higher price for the delay.

I’m sure we will get a grocery, and almost certainly with a public subsidy. That’s not what I’d advocate, but the proposal has obvious support. 

We could (and can) have one, however, more smoothly than this. 

Offer, Cooperation, Gentrification 

Let’s assume that one believes, as Whitewater’s political class has professed for the last generation, that attracting newcomer families to the city is a worthy goal. (I share this goal; for those who don’t, the conversation’s over, so to speak. They need say no more, and may watch out their windows as the city stagnates, then slowly declines.)

Yet, if one believes that attracting newcomers, including families, is a positive end, how are we to do so? There are at least three possibilities: (1) with take-it-or-leave-it-offers, (2) with cooperative engagement, or (3) when offering will no longer matter, and newcomers will take what they want.

Undoubtedly, anyone involved professionally in attracting newcomers sees that a cooperative spirit is the best option; I’m writing in a time when a few who are influential – but outside that development circle – still don’t grasp as much.

It should be obvious that a take-it-or-leave-it-attitude, a view that the city is already flawless and unquestionably desirable – will attract few newcomers, and none who are realistic.  All towns need improvement of one kind or another.  Those who insist that there’s a certain way to talk around here will only be met with desirable prospects’ silence and rejection.

If people are to come here, and buy houses here, they’ll bring more than their money: they’ll come here with their views and cultural preferences. If they can’t bring the latter they’ll not spend the former.

I’ve had conversations with conservative newcomers, for example, from thriving conservative communities, who are surprised that longer-term residents are uninterested in ideas that have been successful elsewhere. ‘That’s the way we do things around here’ is a declaration that discourages the talented from visiting, staying, or participating in civic life. 

When residents respond that way, they undermine the efforts of development advocates. 

The second possibility is to receive newcomers cooperatively: what would they like, what do they think, and how can we meet their likes and incorporate their ideas?  This is the best response, in which we listen and evolve.

There’s a third possibility, however: if newcomers won’t take only what’s offered (they won’t), and if there aren’t effective efforts to meet new residents halfway, then they’ll take what they want on their own terms when our real estate market collapses for lack of prior demand. 

Gentrification may yet come to Whitewater, but it will not come on terms pleasant to the recalcitrant. 

That time is a while yet ahead, and still might be avoided. These years since the Great Recession have seen that possibility draw closer. (Do longterm residents not see the signs of distress? If they can’t see as much, there’s no chance they can manage an eye chart.) If we’re not accepting of newcomers now – politically and culturally – we will reach a time when our acceptance will matter almost not at all.

Informed Residents 

One week ago, at a Common Council meeting, one heard that Whitewater’s municipal government would use a software application to increase opportunities for residents’ input on local issues. See, Common Council meeting of 6.21.16, https://vimeo.com/171809282, beginning at 1:28:17.

Assuming that the means are reliable and accessible, more opportunities for collecting opinion are better than fewer. I’ve always supported a community of more voices over fewer.

Any number, however, needs to be informed. Surveys should mean more than merely asking people questions.

They should require, indeed reasonably must require, providing sufficient information for residents to consider a proposal knowledgeably.

One week later, this evening, the same government that seeks to reach greater numbers is itself silent about the principal terms to purchase a former supermarket building. Residents know neither the purchase amount, possible buyers after municipal purchase, or other significant terms. (See, below, the agenda for tonight’s meeting.)

This is no ordinary transaction; municipal governments don’t commonly purchase grocery buildings. Whatever one thinks of the merits of a possible deal, the residents of this community lack basic information to consider the matter.

There one finds a problem for this municipal government greater than a single purchase: in the space of a week, professions of support for residents’ input fade before closed-session deliberations. Last week it was the means of open government; this week it’s the ends of dealmaking. That’s not an enduring expression of open government and residents’ informed opinion; it’s an opportunistic picking and choosing, placing ends over means.

An ardor for open government that fades after a week is no worthy ardor. It’s as though one professed undying love for one’s spouse, unless and until someone better should come along.

There is no better.

Approve or reject, purchase or walk, yes or no: they all require a more open posture than what’s on offer.

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WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 69 in a series.

Two weeks ago, I posted a simple question about Whitewater’s former Hawthorn Mellody milk plant: “If there had been no milk processing plant in Whitewater, would the city have constructed digester capacity as large as it now has, for importing waste into the city from other locations?”

That’s seemingly a question about a waste-importation proposal, but it’s really a question about economic development.

I posed the question because there’s more than one way to advance a community’s economy, local government’s fiscal condition, and the long-term prospects of both.

One could, for example, (1) provide the smallest possible local government, (2) provide expansive public services, or (3) develop some level of public incentives to spur private growth. The first is a minimal government approach, the second a social welfare approach, and the third a conventional public-private partnership.

Whitewater has primarily adopted that third approach, for about a generation. Whatever one thinks of that approach (and I have been a critic), it is a model that many communities have pursued, in Wisconsin and beyond. See, for example, Places Trying to Cope.

What’s different about a private, and privately-constructed, waste-importing solution to increase municipal revenues is that it separates production from disposal, placing them in different cities.

When Whitewater has a milk plant in town, she had not only the refuse to be processed, but the labor and job gains, in the same city. (At least, while the plant was doing well enough to offer labor gains to the city.) The undesirable (waste from the plant) was balanced with the desirable (jobs).

A public-private arrangement for waste-hauling into Whitewater separates good and bad, and allocates only the undesirable refuse of others’ production to Whitewater. Even if it were to work, that’s a significant departure from a model that tolerates undesirable by-products for the sake of job-sustaining production in the same town.

A Man, His Bad Monkey, and the Rest of Us

 A man walks through town with a small monkey on his shoulder. (A white-headed capuchin, Cebus capucinus, let’s say.) He walks with it about town, into meetings, focus groups, and visits with various officials of the local government. On many occasions, the monkey scratches, bites, or throws its feces at someone. This happens quite a few times.

Thereafter, at a public meeting, someone asks the man about his association with the monkey, and the man replies to that question –

Q: “How are you associated with the monkey?”

A: “I’m not associated with the monkey. That’s a mistake.”

Everyone familiar with the man’s travels about town knows he’s lying, and lying in the way that only the brazen or stupid tell lies: a complete denial in the face of evidence to the contrary.

That means, of course, that’s there’s something profoundly objectionable or unsuitable about the man as a business partner. He might be stupid, but he’s more likely brazen. His complete denial operates as a dare: Can I say anything to you, and have you move on without follow up?

Of course, others in the room know that the man has lied. He has been walking about town with a vile and filthy primate, and that nasty animal has been scratching, biting, and throwing feces on many occasions.

In one way, the single question and the answer it elicited has been successful: the man’s lied at the meeting, and others in the room now know it.

In another way, however, the single question lets the man go on too easily – it’s not enough that insiders know the man is a liar – his denial should be shown there and then for what it is, to all the community, as a blatant, bald-faced lie. A few quick follow ups will serve that purpose, including pictures showing the man with the monkey.

That’s more confrontational, to be sure, but it’s the man who has sparked confrontation by lying about his association with the ornery monkey. The follow up, even if heated, merely enforces an accountability to the truth that underlies a well-ordered society.

In the episode of the man and the monkey, follow up questions that some would describe as ‘grilling’ would be, in fact, a principled, admirable determination to assure lies do not go unremarked.

The more of that we have, the better: when we have more of it, then we’ll have less future need of it, as we’ll not be a mark for liars and charlatans.

About that Development Deal Near the Roundabout in Whitewater…

These last few months, I’ve watched the efforts of out-of-town developers to build a multi-use facility (by their account, a hotel, sports complex, and senior housing) near Whitewater’s east side roundabout.

Two quick, easy points.

First, this proposal was, in virtually every aspect, suspect and disreputable. Review of notes, recordings, and research into the developers’ plans and backgrounds over these last few months only confirms how odd – and substandard – every aspect of this was. Those in office who expressed doubts about this project, including at the Community Development Authority, represented Whitewater’s interests well.

I’ve not written about the project until now because it seemed certain that a majority was sure to see this for what it was. (It is worrisome that a few took longer than others to see these problems, and any discussions after mid December with these unconventional developers – and this is nothing like a conventional deal – would be evidence of poor judgment.)

In this way, as a deal it’s not so interesting; as an example of how some officials show greater insight than others it’s interesting.

Second, if one wanted to see how newspapers fail their readers, one need look no farther than a story in the Gazette: Whitewater City Council rejects proposed development, 2.19.16, http://www.gazettextra.com/20160219/whitewater_city_council_rejects_proposed_development. The reporter treats this as a conventional deal, with conventional developers, and the story even includes a helpful graphic about where this supposed complex was to be located.  A review of the actual documents, presentations, and claims (made over several months) from these developers shows that this proposal was close – much too close – to B-movie science fiction.

Those who expressed doubts, especially those who had doubts early on, were right about this.

‘WEDC has been a disaster from the get-go’

After years of defending the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, one newspaper (out of several in the area) finally concedes the obvious:  ‘WEDC has been a disaster from the get-go.’

See, from 11.28.15, http://www.gazettextra.com/20151128/our_views_consider_two_steps_for_salvaging_state8217s_job_creation_agency, subscription req’d.

Yes, it has been a disaster, as politicized intervention in the economy, to the benefit of one’s well-fed, white-collar executive friends, will prove to be.

Only eighteen months ago, when it should have been clear to a properly read man or woman that WEDC was conceptually wrong, Whitewater’s leading officials touted a second round of WEDC funding as though it were manna from God:

“For us to have gone through that first cycle so quickly means a lot of jobs and new entrepreneur start-ups here in Whitewater, including here in the Innovation Center,” he said. “This is a recognition of a great success story. They have invested in us a second time. Our job now is to drive that to even greater success.”

– Jeff Knight, Whitewater CDA Chairman

“I am selfish,” he said. “The reason I am selfish is that I want Whitewater to be a better city and our university to be a better place. Part of what we do is try to make this a better place to live, work, play and learn. I think that is very important. For the university, my selfish thing is that I want to keep the professors here, and keep our graduates here, and whatever we can do to make that happen, we need to do.”

– Richard Telfer, Chancellor, UW-Whitewater

It feels a bit like déjà vu to be standing here before you all today,” Clapper continued. “It’s been a little over a year since our first event; today, we are celebrating the start of round two and the first grants of that round….”

“In the physical sciences, a catalyst is defined as any substance that works to accelerate a chemical reaction,” Clapper explained. “Without the help of a catalyst, the amount of energy needed to spark a particular reaction is much greater. When a catalyst is present, the energy required for the reaction is reduced, making the reaction happen more efficiently. Without the help of a catalyst, chemical reactions might never occur or take a significantly longer period of time to react.

– Cameron Clapper, Whitewater City Manager

See, from 6.9.14,

Knight speaks in empty platitudes, Telfer should have stopped after his first three words, and Clapper’s idea of chemistry is more like alchemy.

From the beginning, this was an empty ideology, a Third-World-style cronyism.

Whitewater deserves better.