A new report provides a sobering perspective on Janesville’s post-recession prosperity, indicating many of Janesville’s peers are experiencing far more robust growth.

We largely view Janesville’s recovery as a success story within the context of Janesville avoiding a worst-case scenario after the General Motors plant closed in 2009.

The city’s economy is doing better than some prognosticators imagined at the time, cynically envisioning the city’s future as a ghost town.

We shared a collective sigh of relief when their doomsday talk proved an exaggeration. But now that the economy has stabilized, our situation deserves more scrutiny, and a Brookings Institution report about America’s “older industrial cities” provides a good starting point.

It categorizes the Janesville metro area as “vulnerable,” alongside other economic laggards, such as Flint, Michigan; Dayton, Ohio; and Detroit. To land in the same category as a city famous for having a tainted water supply certainly isn’t the stuff that will appear in chamber of commerce brochures about Janesville. But instead of ignoring or arguing with the designation, we should explore it and ask how Janesville can do better.

Janesville’s plight is to some degree a function of its geographical circumstances. The Midwest generally underperformed in the Brookings’ analysis, though we note the report considers Racine “stabilizing” and Milwaukee “emerging.” Eastern cities, such as Pittsburgh, captured the report’s highest designation, “strong,” meaning these areas are close to shedding their “older industrial cities” label.

The rapid pace of technological advancement is expanding the gap between the nation’s “haves” and “have nots.” Cities seem to either have the skilled labor and venture capital to innovate, or they don’t. While productivity has stagnated nationwide, it has increased in cities participating in the tech boom. The report states that “high-tech jobs create large local multiplier effects, increasing demand for labor at all levels.”

This is why it’s so important for local schools and colleges to emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). STEM workers are more productive, and cities with an abundance of them are thriving. Their technological achievements, however, have the perverse effect of eliminating jobs in the short term, namely in older industrial cities.

“Vulnerable” cities such as Janesville have several factors working against them, including a lack of research-intensive universities, though Janesville benefits somewhat from UW-Madison’s proximity. Janesville-based SHINE Medical Technologies is a UW-Madison startup.

Another notable difference between “strong” older industrial cities and “vulnerable” ones is the share of population with STEM bachelor degrees—15.4 percent versus 9.7 percent.

“Vulnerable” cities also tend to suffer from racial disparities, while lacking in amenities and transportation infrastructure that many high-tech companies and their STEM workers covet.

City leaders are trying to modernize Janesville, notably through the ARISE initiative. Making the downtown more attractive is key to improving Janesville’s fortunes. But beyond this and other promotional efforts, the city must contemplate whether it’s cultural and economic priorities are suited better for the 20th or 21st century.

To the extent the city seeks answers from its past, it will remain in the past.

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