The Next Big Thing

You may be sure that these days are scarcely ordinary – we are on the cusp of the extraordinary, the exceptional, and innovative.

Nearly a month ago, Whitewater broke ground on a taxpayer-funded tech park, along a street renamed Innovation Drive, beside our existing business park.

There was a brief ceremony, filmed for those who could not attend. I have embedded the video below, along with the website link where the video may be found:

http://www.blip.tv/file/2688983

You may have already seen the video. Some of these speakers address the group in such grandiose terms that one would think they were describing the work of Edison, Goddard, or Salk.

I’ve been asked, over the last few months, what I think of our latest, next big thing. I’ve written about it before, but along cultural lines: a truly large and thriving tech park would change the town, and would transform much of the existing culture.

Yet, a park like that would employ thousands, on the scale of the university. There’s no dependable expectation that this tech park will ever be so large. A federal grant (taxpayer money, federal deficit spending) and local public debt will pay for much of this project. Someone will cobble the rest together, and a building or two will be built.

Now, I drove to the groundbreaking, but sadly didn’t make it in time. I arrived to find only a large tent, and some chairs, as one sees in the video of the groundbreaking. It was an overcast day, with no one nearby.

I got out of my car, looked around, and walked up and down the road. It’s an empty field to one side, toward Bluff Road, of which an artist’s illustrations depict the completed Innovation Center.

But it’s in the other direction that one sees the future most clearly. Look in the opposite direction, and one sees our existing business park, with dozens of businesses.

The existing business park is far larger than our tech park will likely ever be. If we are, as some grandly claim, just a few buildings away from utopia, then what was everything before? (Likewise, what of an entire university now?)

We’re like a struggling musical group, waiting on this project to deliver us, the way overly optimistic band members are sure, absolutely sure, that a major record label will call, and they’ll have their big break.

Three, four, or five buildings built on grants of taxes and bonds will not be enough. We’ll spend so much, and our fellow Americans will spend so much (in grants to us) that there’ll be scant net gain for this project.

There will be a short-term gain of one kind, though: so much crowing about how the project has transformed the town.

The claims are so outsized that they are hard to justify. There’s an underlying arrogance to it all, in the place of hard but quiet work. There’s a difference between being proud and indulgence in pride.

We’ll have change, but of the kind that will fade and be forgotten, in the search, a few years from now, for the next, next big thing.