In politics right now, as most people are well aware, dishonesty is rampant. Not the garden variety little white lies about politicians’ personal lives, but a structural dishonesty. At the national level this has resulted in “conservative” politicians calling for “lower taxes and smaller government,” decrying government waste and all, but really what they are doing is pulling a switcharoo. Closing down social services and giving the money to the Pentagon. As if the Pentagon doesn’t get taxpayer money and would never, ever waste it. So let us be honest about subsidies.
Governments at all levels subsidize things and the things they subsidize influences our behavior. In general this is a fine concept. No matter what side of things you might be on, you probably like some government subsidy or another. Getting people to recycle is a noble goal, and subsidized here in Wisconsin. But every snowplow is also a subsidy, which might encourage people to drive more. Every bus is a subsidy that might encourage people to drive less. Leaf pickup is a subsidy that encourages people to remove their leaves rather than simply mulching them with a lawn mower.
So the question is not whether or not to subsidize (unless you want to shut all government down, which I don’t) but rather “What should we subsidize?” That is to say: “What should we encourage and help people to do with our tax dollars?”
Some folks make the argument that subsidizing big development projects such as the Dudley Building and the Palladian encourage further economic growth that benefits the city as a whole. This argument obviously carries a lot weight down at city hall. And it might with you as well. However, I tend to feel that these kinds of projects would have gone forward anyway and that city (or other governmental) money could have been used for things that would not otherwise happen or succeed and would benefit our citizens. And, yes, I have some examples.
The Farmers Market. Currently here in Wausau they set up in a dirt patch and have to bring their own tents and tables and such. How about if the city built some permanent stalls closer to downtown, like they have in Stevens Point (not to mention many larger cities)? Encouraging people to support local farms and eat better sounds like a good idea to me.
Downtown Grocery. It is still a bit too early to say if the Downtown Grocery is going to be economically successful or not, and I certainly wish them the best of luck. But it seems to me this is the perfect kind of business that we should subsidize. It gives Wausau a big city atmosphere and provides some of the same benefits as a thriving farmers market. Not to mention a downtown grocery store. Helping them thrive is in the city’s interest, perhaps better than the last supermarket subsidy.
Indoor Park. If you are a parent, how many times have you headed for a fast food place, not really for something to eat, but rather for a place for the kids to run around during bad weather? There are sort of places for kids to play downtown when the weather is rotten, but the little place in the mall and the library don’t really qualify. An indoor park could draw people downtown, especially during the Christmas shopping season.
Riverfront Bike Trail. The Bearskin Trail in Minocqua, starting downtown as it does up there is a wonderful thing and seems pretty well used. I know I drive up there occaisionally to bike on it. Now imagine a trail from downtown to downtown. Say Wausau to Merrill. Or even better from Stevens Point to Wausau to Merrill, following the river as closely as possible. Ride your bike for an hour or two and stop and have lunch at a café. Sounds nice to me.
Weather Radios. Huh? After Ladysmith was hit by a tornado, it was found that the sirens were not functioning properly and rather than try to install and maintain some kind of perfect siren system, the town bought automatic weather radios for everyone. We could make a weather radio part of the building code, like smoke detectors and provide coupons for households below a certain value. Or something like that. Could save a lot of lives.
Wi-fi. A citywide municipal wireless internet system could provide tremendous benefits. At first it would only subsidize a relatively small group, but as computers continue to get cheaper more and more people could get on the network. It might even be possible to have a special “Wausau connection” that would provide essentially a broadcast of local information that could help create a greater sense of common knowledge and community.
It still seems to me that if we provided these kinds of things as a city (and region) that Wausau would get even more of a reputation as a great place to visit and live. Just a totally rad city. Sweeeeeeet, as my son now says (constantly!) With a reputation like that people will come to visit and start their businesses. And hotels, office buildings and restaurants could take care of themselves.