Blugold Bashers

Community should embrace students, not chase them away from voting booth

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Any city with a university will have town-versus-gown grumbling, and the chorus that emerged this spring was a doozy. This time it wasn’t locals complaining about how we’d be better off without these college students around, what with them boozing it up on Water Street or using valuable parking spots. Instead, it was a chorus of townies kvetching that some Blugolds actually voted in a local election. Imagine: These young people – future business owners, teachers, and civic leaders – had the audacity to take part in the democratic process. The horror!

Combined spending by UW-Eau Claire, its students, its employees, and its visitors has a $210 million impact – annually.

The criticism was prompted by the April 1 election, during which the proposed Confluence Project – which would include a shared university-community performing arts center and student housing – got a big boost through the defeat of a city referendum and the passage of a county one. Like the majority of voters, most of the 300-odd students who voted in on-campus wards supported the Confluence. This was too much to bear for the Blugold Bashers, who tried to cleanse the sour grapes from their mouths by writing letters to the editor, commenting online, and otherwise expressing unhappiness that students had voted.

The Blugold Bashers’ criticism is two-fold. First, college students don’t pay property taxes, so why should they be able to vote on matters that directly impact those taxes? Second, college students aren’t long-term residents. They’ve got no loyalty to Eau Claire, so why should their votes shape the city’s future?

Such reasoning is mistaken and ultimately disingenuous. Let’s tackle the “they don’t pay property taxes” argument. First, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If they’re at least 18 and otherwise meet the necessary requirements, college students have a right to vote – period. Fortunately, participating in our democratic system is no longer solely for property owners (and white male property owners at that).

And even if I acknowledge there’s a nugget of truth in this argument – it’s easy to vote to spend money when it isn’t your money – it’s outweighed after further reflection. While most college students don’t own property, most of them are paying property taxes –indirectly, at least. In fact, only about one-third of UWEC’s 11,000 students live on campus. That means most are in apartments and thus paying property taxes via rent to their landlords (unless they live with their taxpaying parents).

Beyond this, students (whether they live on or off campus) and the university are huge drivers of our region’s economy. According to an analysis conducted last year by Wayne Carroll, chairman of the university’s economics department, student spending has a $71 million impact on the Chippewa Valley annually. Combined spending by the university, students, employees, and visitors has a $210 million impact locally. Furthermore, UWEC is responsible for $22 million in state and local tax revenue each year. In light of that, a few million devoted to the Confluence by local governments is a pittance.

The other major attack on college-student voting is based on the assumption that they have no loyalty to our community – that they merely come here, get an education, then ride off into the sunset with their diplomas, never to be seen again. But this argument is also misleading and self-defeating.

First, many UWEC students are from around here, and will remain here. More than 1,800 UWEC students hail from Eau Claire County, a figure far larger than any other county or state. Some will leave after they graduate, but not all.

It’s true that, in a highly mobile society, Eau Claire is only one stop on life’s journey for many students. But using this fact of 21st century life as a cudgel to beat college students with is remarkably shortsighted. Shunning and criticizing college students – whether at the ballot box or in the community at large – is a surefire way to sour them on Eau Claire. This not only may drive them away – why stay in a community after graduation if you don’t feel welcome? – but may also prevent them from being ambassadors for Eau Claire in the wider world. The fact that tens of thousands of people have been educated in our city and moved elsewhere is a strength, not a weakness. If they developed an affinity for our community while they were students, they’re more likely to send their children here to study, to recommend the city to others, or to invest and donate money here. They’re also more likely to come back to visit – or to stay – if the city has something to drawn them, like, for example, an awesome new arts center.

Ultimately, this is why the anti-student argument is self-defeating. One of the many potential benefits of the Confluence Project is the creation of an environment that will be more likely to keep young, college-educated, creative people in town. It’s exactly these kind of people who build businesses, create jobs, and pay local taxes. Rejecting efforts like the Confluence Project on one hand and then condemning college students for leaving for greener pastures on the other hand is absurd and contradictory.

Shooing college students away from the ballot box means shooing them away from the community. Apparently, the Blugold Bashers would prefer it if the grads’ slow march to “Pomp and Circumstance” took them – and the rest of the university community – right out of town. It’s up to the rest of us, who appreciate and value UW-Eau Claire, to make sure that it doesn’t.