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Our Views: A question for Janesville to consider

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Is Janesville a successful city?

City Manager Mark Freitag raised that question, at least in our minds, as part of Sunday's front-page story about policy updates the city is making to help the downtown.

Freitag referenced a 2016 story in The Atlantic magazine, “Eleven signs a city will succeed,” noting one of the signs is the presence of craft breweries. Janesville has two of them, and the story's author, James Fallows, calls them “perhaps the most reliable” of all the indicators. He adds, “You may think I'm joking, but just try to find an exception.”

Fallows and his wife learned the differences between success and failure during a 54,000-mile journey across the United States in a single-engine plane. They hopped from city to city (though didn't pass through Janesville) and wrote several pieces for The Atlantic. We examined Fallows' criteria and, from our admittedly biased vantage point, are happy to report Janesville meets many of them.

Perhaps the one exception is the first sign on Fallows' list: Divisive national politics seem a distant concern. But in all fairness, how many cities have a Congressional representative who is speaker of the House? Furthermore, many locals are less obsessed about national politics than outsiders who occasionally parachute into Janesville to protest, study the city or otherwise seek attention.

Much of this attention is out of Janesville's control, but residents and local leaders should take to heart Fallows' assessment: “Overwhelmingly, the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.”

Janesville does better with other markers on Fallows' list. Fallows says successful cities have a downtown, and they have big plans and public-private partnerships.

The ARISE initiative is exhibit A in demonstrating Janesville residents value downtown and have big plans for it. And without public-private partnerships, ARISE likely wouldn't exist.

Janesville shows other signs of success, too, such as having a community college (UW-Rock County and Blackhawk Technical College) and unusual schools (the collection of Janesville School Districts' charter schools comes to mind).

Janesville is also near a research university (UW-Madison). The technology start-up SHINE Medical Technologies, which hopes to open a manufacturing plant in Janesville, began at the UW-Madison College of Engineering.

Some markers offered by Fallows are entirely subjective, and it's debatable whether, for example, Janesville makes itself open to immigrants and minority groups. Janesville isn't exactly a multicultural mecca, while Fallows argues being inclusive is important for retaining a community's “brightest young people” and attracting “talented outsiders.”

Out of the 11 signs, Janesville's greatest work-in-progress is perhaps its civic story. Fallows says successful cities have a story, whether myth or reality. For years, Janesville viewed itself as a hard-working, blue-collar town, and it still largely is, but the former GM plant's closure forced Janesville to rethink its civic story. This city remains in transition, figuring out how to prosper without a dominant industry or manufacturer.

Which leads us back to the original question: Is Janesville a successful city? It has the right attributes, and it's certainly striving to become a success, and that's what matters most.



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