By Stephen Dedow
When I was first asked to contribute to this project I thought that it would be something that would be relatively easy. What does Oshkosh need? What immediately came to mind was more manufacturing jobs, stronger schools, better infrastructure, greater opportunity for downtown development etc. But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that perhaps there was a more fundamental necessity that our community might need; a stronger sense of self-esteem.
I have lived in this community for fifty three of my fifty eight years and as such have been in pretty much every nook and cranny of our city. During this time I have heard many comments such as “I hate this town”, “that would never happen here”, “we are so backward”, “there is never anything to do here”, “this town sucks” “I can’t wait to move” etc. These types of statements did not come from any single demographic group; they seem to come from deep inside Oshkosh itself.
In my opinion, if an outsider were to take a quick glimpse of our community they would see: low crime rates, high performing schools, gallery walk, a wonderful library, great parks, a revamped museum, a renewed downtown, many area businesses, a strong university, EAA, an infrastructure that is constantly being upgraded, an amphitheater, a stadium, entertainment event after event, Lake Winnebago, river walk, shopping opportunities, higher than average voter turnout, Pollock Pool, and the list goes on and on and on. So why are we apparently so down on ourselves?
The question above creates more questions. Do other communities have a similar perception of self-worth or are we alone in this? How did, when did or perhaps the better question is why did this apparent perception come to pass? What, if anything, can be done to remedy it?
In an attempt to reach a conclusion on this, I went back and asked some of the people who had indicated they had a less than positive perception of our community, why that they felt this way. Some of the responses were surprising. Some people indicated that there were not enough big box retail or franchise restaurant opportunities such as can be found in other communities while other people stated that there were way to many of these currently within our boundaries. Some indicated that a cookie cutter approach to development was something that they were interested in while others stated that they wished Oshkosh would adapt a radically different approach to the development of our City. One hearty soul stated that “when I said Oshkosh sucked I didn’t mean it sucked as bad as Fond du Lac”.
The diametric opposition between some of these responses got me thinking in a different direction. If we can’t arrive at a somewhat mutual vision of what our community should be, can we at least begin to look at many of the unique aspects that Oshkosh currently has in a more favorable light? If visitors to our area run into these types of negative views from our own people, what must they think about our overall community? Would this local perception help or hurt to attract new residents, students, businesses, event opportunities, administrators, innovative minds, etc. to Oshkosh? And I am not talking about wrapping everything up in a big bright and smiley package with a drippy saccharine sweet bow on top of it. I am just wondering if it is really that hard to begin to look at the glass as half full versus half empty. Even the most hard core naysayers had something positive to say about Oshkosh when pressed. Why can’t we begin with the positive and then move to the negative if we think it is important to do so?
Of course not everyone has something critical to say about Oshkosh when you ask them about our community and Oshkosh itself certainly has room for improvement (as do all communities) but if we continually slam it, aren’t we in essence slamming ourselves? And isn’t this a direct reflection of low self-esteem? If we repaired all of the roads, had great economic opportunities, world class schools, a vibrant downtown, and innovative artistic opportunities would the same people still be so critical of their community? I guess possibly there would be some that would continue the practice because it is in their nature to do so. But perhaps by just pointing out the unique aspects of Oshkosh first we can accelerate our forward momentum as opposed to the current status of witnessing change at glacial speed.
Anyway, what Oshkosh needs in my opinion is maybe a little more self-esteem, a little more confidence in itself, and oh yeah, two more months of warm weather.
Stephen Dedow is the Vice-President for the Board of Education of the Oshkosh Area School District, Business Manager for the Stagehands IATSE Local #470. He lives in Oshkosh with his three children: Athena, Julian and Lucian. He also plays a mean guitar.