Hope springs eternal, if you are in the sales business. Or should I say, if your community is in the car manufacturing business. | submitted by Ray Allen
I have never spent much time in Janesville. Seems like a nice place. Several of my friends have made the commute for years, traveling to work at the former General Motors plan.
So it was interesting hearing the news.
"We are still alive," Gov. Jim Doyle said at a recent press conference held to announce that the The General Motors plant in Janesville and the Chrysler engine plant in Kenosha have a new chance at life.
Of course, we know now that Janesville was not GM's choice over Michigan, but right up to the last speech, many kept hope alive.
Never would anyone of my age group ever anticipated that the American symbol of industry, General Motors, would go bankrupt. In 1953, [then] General Motors president Charles Wilson, during questioning at his Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense, articulated the importance of GM to our economic well-being. When asked whether he would have a problem making governmental decisions that might not be in the interest of GM, he famously stated (he) could not imagine a conflict of interest "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." (Later that would be simplified to: "What's good for General Motors is good for the country.")
What has been good for General Motors has also been very good for Janesville. Janesville residents and it local economy have always been dependent on GM. But while the possibility of an auto industry rebirth in Janesville spurred hope, was it really in their best interest?
Perhaps its time for Janesville to break its auto manufacturing addiction and focus on diversifying its economy. And if it chooses to do so, there is a model in place in their neighbor to the east: Kenosha.
For years, Kenosha drank the auto industry Kool-aid, having its major employer being the now defunct American Motors. In the 1970's, American Motors employed around 16,000 people at the Kenosha facility. American Motors struggled, producing cars that had little public appeal and poor quality. Along came Chrysler (think Fiat circa 2009) to save the day and keep the company town in business. The only problem was that Chrysler didn't do any better with its product line and by 1988, it was facing closure.
In stepped the government.
At the time, Tommy Thompson was governor, John Collins was the Kenosha County Executive, and John Birkholz was the President of the local technical college, Gateway. Together, they teamed to set Kenosha on a new course — one in which the area addiction to auto manufacturing was broken.
I was working at the old Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (now DWD) at the time, serving as the department's executive assistant. The position provided me with a first-hand view of how a commitment to diverse private sector economic development and growth can move a community from dependence to independence.
The involvement of government (not in an ownership capacity, but as a supporter of private economic development) helped create a Kenosha with a more diverse economy.
You can read about it here: http://www.jsonline.com/business/29482974.html
Therein lies a lesson for all municipalities, including Madison.
Dependence on any single industry as its economic base will cause the area to run the risk of becoming a Janesville or Kenosha.
Madison is fortunate that its reliance on Government employment as it primary economic base has diminished over the years.
However, Madison and other communities must remain proactive in their efforts to diversify their economies. That diversification should start with supporting and building a strong, diverse local small business base.
While the allure of a General Motors is far sexier, investment in businesses which remain committed to the local community tend to have a more lasting effect.