Whitewater’s an unusual town: most cities in Wisconsin don’t host a college campus. Nearby cities may have living there some faculty and staff from UW-Whitewater, but that economic boost pales in comparison with the presence of a campus along Main, with thousands of students attending.
Our infrastructure is different owing to the presence of the campus, the amount of public money flowing into the city is different (for the campus directly, in support of it indirectly), and our local economy is different from many other cities as demand here is markedly different from, let’s say, Milton or Fort Atkinson.
We often talk about Whitewater as though it were One WhitewaterTM, but that’s misguided, and leads to both confusion and error about fiscal and economic policy. Many small towns would come much closer to the concept of ‘one town’ – that is, one demographic – than Whitewater.
(About six years ago, I heard someone opine that the key to understanding Whitewater is to understand its three largest public institutions: university, school board, and municipal government. It’s not. Thinking about these institutions without much thought to the people who comprise them, let alone everyone else not a part of them, is myopic. If someone said that Whitewater had an office, a factory, and a farm, would anyone else think that an understanding of the city had been settled?)
We talk about infrastructure, about public spending, and about the private economy in a mistaken way when – despite our beautiful city’s small size – we talk about Whitewater as though it were one demographic.
Now, I don’t mind our character one bit – I like our city as she is, as a heterogeneous, diverse, evolving place. But even if I did mind, still there would be an obligation to assess so well as possible. That means recognizing existing heterogeneity. See, A Small But Diverse City, Seldom Described That Way.
It’s only by doing so that one can understand sensibly why some infrastructure spending succeeds, why some public spending succeeds, and why some (but not sadly not all) private ventures flourish. Infrastructure, spending, and private production of goods & services have to meet the actual demographics – the actual needs – of the city’s residents. See, The Meaning of Whitewater’s Not-Always-Mentioned Demographics.
But when we think of Whitewater as one entity, or as no more than an institutional troika, we’re left without an adequate explanation for Whitewater’s successes or failures. And when we think of Whitewater as one entity, or as no more than an institutional troika, we waste resources.
It’s bad to be without an adequate explanation; it’s far worse to waste resources. Having the explanation is a defense against waste, and an assurance that those who need something are the ones who receive something.