A sad story from April about Bristol, N.H. (population 3,300) reveals key differences between that town and Whitewater. While this new recession affects both communities, the economic hardship will be different. See David Gelles, ‘This Is Going to Kill Small-Town America.’
By the end of March, with just a few local cases confirmed, gift shops, yoga studios and restaurants had all shut their doors. Hundreds lost jobs, contributing to a record surge in national unemployment claims.
But at least the Freudenberg factory was running at full strength. The factory, which employs 350 people and makes bonded piston seals and other components for carmakers around the world, has an outsize impact on Bristol’s economy.
Besides paying employees their salaries and the town taxes, the factory — part of a German industrial conglomerate — is the largest customer of Bristol’s sewage and water systems, a linchpin of the annual budget.
On April 3, the bad news started to spread around town. Freudenberg announced it was firing more than 100 people, shutting down its manufacturing of bonded piston seals and looking for additional buyouts. With car sales around the world essentially halted, automakers were suspending operations, and suppliers like Freudenberg were suddenly without revenue to pay workers in places like Bristol.
Whitewater’s difference is clear: she mostly depends on a (relatively large for the city’s size) public university campus, along with few light manufacturing concerns in her industrial park. It’s the public university – one that depends on public funds – that sustains Whitewater at her present size.
(Whitewater’s tax-designated business lobby, called the Greater Whitewater Committee, asserts a private, pro-business stance but looks more like a mouthpiece for a few who’ve thrived in a dependent economy in which public monies sustain a public university.)
That is, in fact, how Whitewater, WI is unlike Bristol, N.H.: she’s a small town dependent on a UW System school. That school – like so many other UW System schools – faces longterm fiscal challenges, demographic challenges that aggravate her fiscal challenges, and now a second set of economic problems from the current recession.
UW-Whitewater, however, is not truly at risk of closure. The school may shrink in student population, and doing so would weaken some parts of the local economy more than others, but as long as the school goes on the city will muddle along. Muddling along is hardly an auspicious prospect, but Whitewater’s never developed a diversified economy despite a thousand press releases insisting that she’s on the move.
One hopes the best for Bristol, New Hampshire, but a community in her position might, sadly, find itself a ghost town. Whitewater’s repeated failures of the last generation will likely not (one may be thankful) send her to the grave. It’s more likely that she’ll muddle along somewhat less capably over the next several years, a bit weaker each year. That, too, is tragic, but it’s a different kind of tragedy, less immediately dire but no less finally disconcerting.
Whitewater’s myriad needs require a shift in thinking & action, in which one turns away from public officials’ big statements and little gains, toward private, unselfish charitable actions. See An Oasis Strategy.