Frank Schultz: Disaster strikes; Janesville perseveres

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, December 15, 2013

Journalists' hearts pound a bit harder when they get to cover a disaster, and the loss of thousands of jobs in Janesville surely was a disaster in 2008.

They came from all over to report on it.

Reporting means you look around you and ask people what's happening. You strive to talk to the people who will know a lot about what's happening, and you try to talk to those who are affected the most.

Then you try to make sense of it all.

It's never perfect.

So it was with the flock of journalists who parachuted into Janesville in 2008 and 2009. They saw a community in the first stages of dealing with a disaster.

Skip forward to 2012. Scott Acker was, in his words, “stalking” Janesville because he had a decision to make: Should he put his third Quaker Steak & Lube franchise here?

Acker gets a lot of his news in Milwaukee and Madison. The view of Janesville in those media markets is always the bad news, he said, always with the same old images of a closed GM plant.

It's an old story: Plant closes, business dries up, people move away.

Acker studied economic data. He talked to other business owners in Janesville's east-side commercial district. And he observed.

He saw something different from what he heard on TV.

It was the week before Christmas in 2012. He had been checking out Janesville restaurant parking lots and watching shoppers. He was impressed with high levels of activity.

Then he found himself in a holiday traffic jam on Milton Avenue. He called his wife.

“This road is busier than Blue Mound Road in Brookfield right now,” he told her, referring to the commercial strip in the well-to-do Milwaukee suburb.

“Oh, come on,” she responded.

“No, he said, “there's so much traffic for Christmas here. It's crazy.”

“Well, then you have to do it,'” she said.

So he did, and the restaurant was recently recognized for being the most successful opening in the national restaurant chain this year.

Are happy days here again? Not for a lot of Janesvillians. But this city never fit the stereotype of another rust-belt city gone bad.

Janesville looks pretty good five years after GM closed. It is not Detroit. It is not a ghost town.

Homeowners managed to keep their houses looking nice despite the fact that they couldn't afford paint or a new lawnmower every time they needed it.

Movers and shakers—remember Rock County 5.0?— worked to turn the economy around.

Laid-off, aging workers retrained, learning about computers and the Internet.

Yes, some of these failed. The long march of foreclosures tells us that. The demands on our food pantries tell us that. Many clung to their lives by their fingernails and clawed their way to a safe spot. It wasn't the place they wanted to be. They don't earn what they use to earn. But they did their best, and they should take pride in that.

Two journalists spent a lot of time in Janesville: Brad Lichtenstein, who produced the documentary “As Goes Janesville,” and Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post.

Both were here for many months, talking to dozens if not hundreds of people. Both got some things right.

“As Goes Janesville” scratched the surface of the sacrifices so many made. The film focused on GM workers who went to Fort Wayne, Ind., to keep their jobs and hold onto their pensions, leaving their families behind during the workweek.

Other GM workers transferred to Texas, Ohio or Kansas.

But families stayed. The feared exodus from the schools never happened. People kept spending their money here, even if they earned it elsewhere, bolstering the economy.

Many workers were displaced, downsized or suffered hits to their incomes and dreams of a comfortable retirement. Incomes dived to a new normal. Others were torn apart—drugs, depression, divorce, despair.

But many persevered. We kept on raising our children. The appearance of the city didn't suffer. No extra empty storefronts. Foreclosures, yes, but we saw no neighborhoods full of abandoned houses.

We deserve a pat on the back. Maybe we should print T-shirts: “We survived the Great Recession, and we're still lookin' good—Janesville, Wis.”

Goldstein, who is working on a book about what happened to Janesville, told an NBC reporter last April: “The school system, for instance, has had to adjust because now more than half the kids are poor enough for federal lunch subsidies–double what it was a few years ago.”

That's about right, but the march to lower incomes for more and more families started in the 1990s. It was a national trend, not GM-related.

“Janesville is a very generous-spirited place, with fundraising going on all the time; but it's hard to keep up with the new demand,” Goldstein told NBC.

“Yes” to the first half of that sentence. And “maybe” to the second half. It is amazing how we keep working to make Janesville better. We even managed to expand help to the homeless during the recession. The GIFTS Mens Shelter started in 2007. Project 16:49 for homeless youth started in 2008. Both still are going strong.

Remember that huge food-for-the-needy operation that the United Auto Workers started in the 1980s? The school district took it over and kept it running.

Now, we hear hopeful signals from business and industry. An expansion here, more jobs there. And we hear our schools are improving.

It's a ray of hope that the new state report cards found the Janesville School District at the top of the heap among the larger districts in the state. This happened because teachers and their bosses worked hard to make it happen.

The school board and superintendent have committed to producing students who can compete in the globally connected 21st century. If they reach that goal, the next generation won't have to look back in envy at those auto-plant jobs that paid so well. They'll be able to look forward to jobs in which they are paid for their creativity and high-level skills.

As a hometown journalist, I can see something that those reporters who dropped in on us five years ago cannot see. I can see a community that took its future into its own hands and kept on trying.

Results so far: Not bad.

Frank Schultz is a longtime reporter for The Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at @FrankieJosef.

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