Before becoming the editor of your favorite weekly newspaper, I was the editor of a business magazine for 10 years.
In that time, I appropriated two sayings probably first uttered by others as my own clichés: (1) Communities are organic — they grow, or they shrink; and (2) change is inevitable, but positive change is not.
I’ve been reminded of both of those truisms in the past couple of months. Chief Executive magazine’s annual state business climate survey noted that during the previous decade nearly 12,000 more people moved out of Wisconsin than moved into Wisconsin. Grant County’s population increased 3.2 percent, and Lafayette County’s population increased 4.3 percent, between 2000 and 2010, but that growth is less percentage-wise than the state’s 6 percent population growth between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses.
What I’ve particularly noticed, though, is the dramatic drop in school enrollments since I came to southwest Wisconsin as a full-time resident in 1988. Part of that is because families of the 2010s are smaller than they were two generations ago. Part of that, though, is because people vote with their feet where they think opportunity can be found.
One month ago, the Platteville Common Council held a work session on long-term city finances, particularly how to pay for however much street construction the city wants to do. In late June, Common Council President Mike Dalecki said
“The city’s budget circumstances are dire right now.” In July, Dalecki repeated, “Our budget is in terrible shape.”
That is why the Common Council has been discussing unpopular subjects like the future of city police and fire dispatch, increasing taxes and increasing city borrowing. I wasn’t here to observe this, but I suspect the council earlier this year considered the dorm project on the Pine/Bonson parking lot because it would bring in more city revenue, even though it would make downtown parking more scarce.
The third choice — to grow the tax base, getting more people and businesses into Platteville to pay taxes, instead of increasing taxes on those who live and own businesses here — is the driver of, to use recent examples, Tax Incremental Financing districts, holding onto a Class B liquor license for a future destination restaurant, efforts to attract Emmi Roth and its $44 million artisanal cheese plant, and the approval of UW–Platteville’s $19 million Rountree Commons. That’s also why UW–Platteville’s proposed Innovation Center is important to not just UW–Platteville but Platteville. (Not to mention communities around Platteville, like Dickeyville, Livingston, Belmont, Potosi, Tennyson and Rewey.)
Even after its 12.4-percent population growth between 2000 and 2010, and even with UW–Platteville growing the most in enrollment percentage-wise of any UW four-year school, Platteville remains the smallest city in Wisconsin with a four-year UW campus. I’ve been to Stevens Point (26,717 as of 2010) and Whitewater (14,390), and from what I’ve seen their quality of life seems just fine even though those cities are substantially larger than Platteville. As long as growth is managed correctly, economic and population growth need not come at the expense of small-town quality of life.
Platteville, however you define it (not necessarily restricted to within the city limits), has a substantial number of people who work here but don’t live here, and vice versa. Each of those groups spends money here, whether it’s paying property taxes on their homes, or paying the salaries of business employees by buying things here. What’s preferable, though, is for people to live and work here. Those people are more involved in the community, whether that means the schools, churches, civic groups or other ways to be involved.
My favorite demographer, Joel Kotkin, wrote The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. (Kotkin is the antidote to demographer Richard Florida, whose “creative class” theory essentially says that any community smaller than six figures in population is doomed.) Kotkin’s description of 21st century communities where, thanks to the Internet, people can live in small communities yet sell products and services worldwide (sometimes even from the same building), fits communities like Platteville perfectly.
May, my first month at The Journal, is the month of graduations — UW–Platteville, then the four high schools. (The last was Platteville, which was either June 3 or, shall we say, May 34.) One wonders, after high school graduates leave the area for college, the military or their first jobs, how many return, work for local employers, start their own businesses, and start their families here. The exact same question could be asked of those who graduated from UW–Platteville May 12, or those coming to UWP the end of this month, because college graduates are the people every community wants to attract.
UW–Platteville’s growth as a component of southwest Wisconsin’s growth is necessary but not sufficient by itself. I’ve heard general goals of substantial enrollment, program and building growth, with conflicting numbers attached depending on whom you ask. The more students there are, the more things they buy here, which means the more money businesses get to pay their employees, who therefore have more money to buy things, and so on. UW–Platteville’s presence and growth is one reason why the most recent recession had less effect in Platteville than in other parts of the country.
Reasonable people can disagree with how to deal with the issues growth brings, such as parking, about which I’ve written before and no doubt will again. And since college-age adults sometimes do stupid things, the more of them you have, the more stupid things will take place, simply through mere mathematics. But the choice of growing or not growing — liking the way things are — is a false choice, because things do not stay the way they are. Growth, including all of growth’s problems, is preferable to the alternative.