Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Paul Esslinger, Visionary

Councilman Esslinger's letter to the NW today deserves some parsing, as most of his Delphic wisdom does.

If we're keeping score is city winning or losing

We all love to see cheerleaders at the game we are attending. They get the crowd into the game and instill a sense of pride for our team. But we have to remember that the cheerleader will cheer no-matter what the score is.

Ah, a sports metaphor -- something that has never been deployed in the history of civil discourse and/or political discussion.

In Oshkosh, we have some cheerleaders that have lost a sense of the "score." Some suggest that the 30's, 40's and 50's were somehow bad times for Oshkosh.

I'm not exactly sure what the specific point of reference to this comment is, or who the "some" Esslinger suggests are responsible for such negativity, but it seems to me that between the Depression and World War II the 30s and 40s were indeed, at the very least, stressful times in town (I'll punt on the 50s). Then again, I'm too young to make that comment with any degree of experiential certainty -- why don't we ask someone who was actually there?

I'm too young to remember them...

Oh...

...but I have heard about some of the great businesses that have left Oshkosh only to be replaced by big box retailers. There's nothing wrong with big box retailers, however, manufacturing jobs generally pay much better than retail.

No one's going to argue that manufacturers pay better than Wal-Mart, but what's all this about big boxers "replacing" manufacturers? Retailers compete with other retailers. I don't ever recall having to wait in the checkout line at SNC when I'm going to pick up some transformers.

Some are happy with the form of government for the past 50 years yet they complain of the deteriorated streets, sidewalks, and the sewer and water systems.

(Emphasis added)

Now we're getting to the point! This isn't about cheerleaders, the good old days, or over-sized containers -- this is about sidewalks! Esslinger took some heat for his foray into the city's class war, and his faux populism was justifiably called out by many a voter. Presumably he is using this chance to get the record straight, but he certainly has taken his sweet time getting to the point.

I will respectfully remind them that it is this form of government that has neglected these projects, while we build for the long term "goals" of the city.

Sorry, Mr. Councilman, but you could not be more full of shit than you are trying to be right now. The council is elected to plan for the city's long term and not to micro-manage the details. If you genuinely thought this to be the job you ran for office for, then why aren't you out at Arboretum Court with a trowel and some cement building those damn sidewalks with your own bare hands?

Now let's move on to something that has absolutely nothing to do with sidewalks.

Here is a partial list of companies that flourished in the 30's, 40's and 50's that I would love to have back in Oshkosh: Oshkosh Brewing, Peoples Brewing, Rahr Brewing, Coke, 7-up, Paine, Deltox, Dumphy Boat, Diamond Match, Leach, Oshkosh B'Gosh, Wisconsin Automated Machinery, and the Universal Foundry.

Great. What's this list have to do with anything? They were here, now they're gone. It's a shame to see any business leave, but why not list all of the restaurants that have closed shop in the last fifty years too?

Local breweries like the Peoples, the Oshkosh and the Rahr died out across the country when massive macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch developed state-of-the-art distribution networks, developed cheaps ways to make glass bottles (that people could just throw away) and transitioned to aluminum cans. Ditching the returnable glass bottle model meant consumers no longer had to go back to the store to return the empties so bottling beverages could be done at one large facility and then shipped all over an expanded region at a cheaper cost. Same thing goes with 7-Up and Coke.

And what happened when the breweries left? Well, there was a dry period, but eventually folks like the Supples noticed an under served (as it were) market for local brewers and built the Fox River Brewing Co.

Think of it as the economic Circle of Life.

The other companies listed, those with more of an industrial and/or manufacturing bent, also left for purely economic reasons. Leach took off because labor was cheaper in Canada. Paine Lumber never recovered from the Depression; we could on and on but the fact of the matter is that the cost of manufacturing depends on the balance of labor and raw materials -- and raw materials rarely get cheaper, so when that cost can be offset by cheaper labor the odds are that's the direction in which the manufacturer will head.

James Fallows recent article on factories in China should make it perfectly clear to anyone that manufacturing jobs as we know them today will not be coming to Oshkosh anytime soon -- and if they do, will probably not be staying here for long. More manufacturing jobs in Oshkosh would great, but the unfortunate thing about these jobs is that they can be done anywhere and by anyone. It takes just as long to train an American on an assembly line as it does to train the Chinese.

The jobs that the city should want -- the jobs that will stay here in the long term -- will be skilled jobs that require a substantial education and a significant investment into human resources. These aren't manufacturing jobs. These are white collar, creative, research-orientated occupations in fields like finance and biotech.

Many of these businesses will not sprout up here in Oshkosh on there own. We will have to bring them here (at least at first). We will have to seek out companies that are looking to expand and offer them incentives to settle into Oshkosh. But before that happens companies will need to know they can hire a staff that will do a difficult job well.

In other words, Mr. Esslinger, if you would like to return the city to its former glory, invest in human resources, not in sidewalks.

And now back to our regularly scheduled sports metaphor.

Now, for the cheerleaders in Oshkosh; if Oshkosh is a team and we're competing against neighboring communities, are we tied, ahead, or behind?

This is very cute. What started as a simple analogy in the first paragraph is now a full-fledged insult. Let's face it, cheerleaders are generally girls, which is exactly what Esslinger is calling his opponents in this letter. That's very classy, Mr. Councilman. Yet the amazing thing is not the petty pot shot he takes at his detractors, but the astonishing myopia he reveals. "Competing against other neighboring communities?" Are you kidding me? We're competing with communities on the other side of the world right now! Neenah is the least of our worries in many respects.

So let's not confuse the two issues here that Mr. Esslinger is trying to join. The sidewalks debacle was little more than a waste of time and actually distracted folks on the council, including Esslinger, from their real responsibilities of planning the city's economic growth for the years to come. I'm just as upset that many of the businesses that helped make Oshkosh what it is are gone, especially the iconic companies like Oshkosh B'Gosh (which did more to market the city than anything person or institution), but there's a reason while economics is called the "dismal science" and wallowing in the past will do nothing to create growth in the future. Nor will whining about sidewalks.

If Esslinger genuinely thinks that solving the sidewalk deficit in Oshkosh is part of planning for the long-term economic goals of this city, then there seems to be only one question that needs to be asked of the Councilman: what the hell game are you watching?

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