City Manager Mark Freitag’s State of the City address was so rosy in its assessment that it could have been mistaken for a marketing pitch. The state of the city isn’t just strong, he said. It’s “booming.”
One of Freitag’s jobs is to promote the city, and so it’s not too surprising his view of the city would be almost uniformly positive. And he’s right about the city’s fortunes improving in recent years. We’ve applauded many of the city’s achievements on this page.
But “booming” is a bit of a stretch.
The region’s low unemployment and rising home prices come with important caveats that Freitag failed to note. Many of the jobs created over the past decade pay relatively low wages and lack the sort of benefits Janesville workers had during General Motor’s heyday before the local plant closed in 2009.
The sobering reality comes across in the nearby letter to the editor from a member of the Janesville ECHO Board of Directors, Rita Milbrandt. She calls on the public to make more donations—from canned soup to diapers—to her organization’s pantry. ECHO in the past year has run short on money as a lack of affordable housing has pushed some families, including some fully employed, toward homelessness. Her plea isn’t the type we’d expect amid a boom.
Poverty remains stubbornly high for a community with 3.3% unemployment. A 2018 United Way study showed 42% of all Rock County households were either in poverty or on the cusp of falling into it because of growing financial burdens.
Such statistics dump cold water on the notion that the city is booming, which Freitag seemed to define mainly as a surge in the city’s assessed value, increasing by nearly 33% over the past five years.
But higher property values don’t necessarily translate into higher household incomes, as many homeowners can attest. While some residents might feel a little richer because their home values have risen substantially, that new wealth often cannot be easily pocketed.
The nation has experienced a long run of economic growth, and Janesville is overall better off today than during the Great Recession. But the city’s south side, in particular, is arguably worse off with its numerous business closures over the past few years, including the loss of its main grocery store, Pick ’n Save.
The good news is the city, especially with its recent improvements to the downtown and new apartment complex construction, is headed in the right direction. It is making progress.
And Freitag might someday be proven correct. Janesville could become a genuine boom town with incomes and property values rising in tandem. But until that day arrives, we’ll encourage city officials to tone down the flattery.