There’s no better summary of the millions wasted on Whitewater’s Innovation Center than that from the building’s own Executive Director, Robert Young:
The major accomplishment was raising $11.5 million to make this community-university project possible…
It’s not a perfect summary, of course: Young cleverly uses the term ‘raising,’ as though the money for the building came from private investment, charitable contributions, or bake sales. It didn’t: this building used federal taxpayer dollars and local municipal debt.
Otherwise, it’s a candid admission of what a sham this center is – this is a public boondoggle masquerading as a private initiative.
This was the true purpose of the nearly five-million dollar federal grant for this building, as the federal government intended it:
September 7-September 11, 2009
….$4,740,809 to the Whitewater Community Development Authority, the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, and the City of Whitewater, Wisconsin, to fund construction of the new Innovation Center and infrastructure to serve the technology industrial park, including a road linking the project with the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus. The goal of the project is to create jobs to replace those lost in the floods of 2008 and those lost from recent automotive plant closures. The Innovation Center will serve as both a training center and technology business incubator and will be constructed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification standards. A portion of the project’s cost will be funded through EDA’s Global Climate Change Mitigation Incentive Fund.
This investment is part of an $11,051,728 project which grantees estimate will help create 1,000 jobs and generate $60 million in private investment.
The goal: One-thousand (new!) jobs, and sixty-million in (genuine!) private investment to replace lost jobs.
That’s not what this is.
Most of the workers in the building are public employees commuting from a prior location, and employees of a supposed capital-management firm who are really just publicly-paid faculty getting a leg up at state expense over genuine, private entrepreneurs. It’s cushy, state-supported capitalism.
Even the short list of tenants belies how tiny some of them truly are: some are renting space about that of a farm shed.
Meanwhile, the nearby business park has tens of thousands of square feet of empty building space (in two buildings alone, about 76,000 and 19,000 square feet, respectively).
That’s twice as much nearby vacant space as all possible space in the Innovation Center.
To the Tech Park Board: Nothing you do or say can make this sow’s ear a silk purse. You should not have taken this money — it should have gone to a community that would have used it properly for those in genuine need. Your selfishness denied another American town a chance to do something right and good.
Here’s a quick recap of your work:
(1) You took millions from a federal grant,
(2) issued millions more in public debt,
(3) issued those millions in municipal public debt even when you knew the city’s existing developments were troubled (that tax-incremental-district four was a candidate for distressed status)
(4) spent meeting after meeting worrying about trivial topics like signs, etc.,
(5) ignored the obvious principle that a project manager should not award itself a contractor’s job,
(6) madly scrambled when the Economic Development Administration had to remind you of that obvious requirement through a Cease and Desist order,
(7) avoided candidly telling the public about the EDA notice of federal violations at a Community Development Authority meeting shortly after that order was issued,
(8) only admitted the regulatory violations you committed after I published the EDA’s Cease and Desist order at FREE WHITEWATER,
(9) made every excuse under the sun why you didn’t follow written federal requirements that most communities manage easily and properly,
(10) poured hours into serial celebrations and grand-openings of the building,
(11) built something new when there was plentiful, vacant office space nearby,
(12) laughably talked about this ordinary building as though it were a cathedral,
(13) gave a presentation in Iowa about the success of the project even before it was completed (!) – and before the EDA rebuked your deficient understanding of conflict-of-interest requirements,
(14) spent time applying for awards (including supposedly international ones!) from obscure organizations that choose ‘winners’ only from among submissions of paid members,
(15) for an anchor tenant that’s actually a public employer relocating from an old building to this new one,
(16) insisted that the public anchor tenant was ‘paying the bills’ when, in fact, taxpayers are paying the bills both of the anchor tenant and for the public money and public debt of this project,
(17) called this a green project when, in fact, it’s a mediocre-looking building that’s brown both literally and figuratively,
(18) destroyed true greenspace for something that looks like a bottom-shelf middle school,
(19) and committed countless hours on this vanity project instead of care for thousands of struggling residents, including hundreds of impoverished children.
There’s no surprise that Old Whitewater will do and say anything to promote itself.
And yet, and yet — there’s no going back for this city, as a New Whitewater, of true priorities and so a better politics, draws nearer.
For a list of prior posts on this topic, see Innovation Center/Tech Park.
Could you provide your thoughts on:
1) If what I read is correct CESA gets about $25,000 from the state. Then it receives revenue for services it provides to school districts. I do understand CESA’s are established by the state, but how is this much different from say a company like NASCO or Skyward Technologies that earns most of its revenue from school districts purchasing their services/products?
2) What about the significant increases in catering revenue that the privately owned restaurants in Whitewater earn from the activities at the center?
3) From what I’ve read about Blackthorne, it is not primarily providing employment to faculty at the university but is rather a privately held company.
Thanks for commenting.
On CESA — My overview point would be that there’s nothing wrong with having Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, but that that one of them is not suited as an anchor tenant for this building. Funding an Innovation Center for this anchor tenant is, to me, a clear mistake. I don’t doubt that CESAs do good work (“Much of the work that CESA performs concerns laudable services to schools, including special education students.”) It’s that CESA 2 needn’t have left Milton.
You’re right that CESAs, as successors to county school superintendents’ offices, are creatures of state law. Wis Stats. 116. That doesn’t make them bad, it simply makes them different in their fundamental organization from a private vendor. It’s true that CESAs each receive a fixed amount, by statute, “not to exceed $25,000 annually shall be paid to each agency for the maintenance and operation of the office of the board of control and agency administrator and to match any federal funds received by the agency for vocational education administration…” Wis. Stat. § 116.08.
That small amount, however, is only a part of state & federal grants, and district taxpayer money, they receive each year.
They’re different from a private vendor in their history and in their legal position – ordinary vendors aren’t established by law to provide services to districts within a specific area, exclusive of others. CESAs don’t overlap, just as county superintendents didn’t overlap. They each get a state-authorized territory, and a state-sanctioned mandate to provide services. They’re institutionalized in a way that private concerns could never be. That’s a huge leg up.
They’re work is important, but not suited to this kind of building. Ironically, Whitewater’s city manager has, himself, implicitly acknowledged that CESA 2 is an odd fit, with the explanation that its presence “helps pay the bills.” It’s a cynical justification.
On catering — I don’t know how much restaurants make from the Center, but that means something. Still, one could have placed these tenants in an existing, empty building in the business park and still assured a demand for catering. There’s a value from catering, but it needn’t have been catering to this building, that cost so much.
On Blackthorne — you’re right about the faculty already being employed publicly. I simply don’t think they deserve a leg up (a public facility) over private entrepreneurs. If they have good ideas, they should go into the private market for investors, private office space, bank loans, etc. Whitewater didn’t need to issue millions in public bond debt to subsidize the entrepreneurial ambitions of white-collar academics.