The (False) Theory of Central Relativity.

In many cities, of disparate sizes, there is a strong theory that if one fixes the downtown – makes it look nicer, improves streets, lighting, and building facades, etc., then the town will undergo a more thorough renaissance. If you build it, or rehabilitate it, they will come…

In measures small and moderate, Whitewater has tried this approach. We’ve improved the look of the lakefront, moved the Fourth of July celebrations to the lakefront, restored murals, and added paddle-boats. The city has established a contact with a local hot-dog vendor, Dapper Dogs, to supply food.

And yet, and yet…nearby Center Street is still a partially vacant mess, and we have vacancies throughout the nearby area. (My post from a few days ago, Vacant Whitewater, offered only a smattering.) Downtown public development and expenditure along the Cravath Lake cannot replace, and has trouble attracting, private investment. Private capital and investment available so greatly outstrips public expenditures possible for our small town that no amount of additional downtown public renovations could replace private initiative.

Aggregate additional private investment has avoided Whitewater, however. Additional commercial, retail real estate to the east of the city comes at the expense of the west. If we were growing more soundly, expansion eastward (a new set of shops, the long-awaited Red Onion, and so forth) would not come in an environment of significant, visible vacancies merely a mile away. Some areas of the city have become more desirable, but an overall gain to the community is lacking.

Our improved lakefront is a benefit less powerful than it would have been where (1) there were many more people nearby, (2) the downtown was larger, (3) public expenditures attracted new businesses beyond existing commercial capacity, and (4) new private expenditures were diverse, and dwarfed public expenditures.
Our lakefront efforts have been attractive, but have not produced what we might have hoped. Starting with public efforts, from the center, and hoping to entice private ones, has not been a sound model.

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