I think we're winning... and the LAIC may help us.
No, Bulldog Media has not taken over the Madville Times. I maintain the opinion that the Lake Area Improvement Corporation, Lake County's quasi-private economic development corporation, has wasted perhaps millions of private and public dollars over the last several years on failed projects, bloated salary, and unaccountable expenditures.
However, what I heard last night during the new LAIC exec Julie Gross's budget request to the Madison City Commission makes me think the LAIC might be ready to lead on downtown economic development.
Gross submitted the LAIC's request for $260,000 from the city in the 2013 budget. That's the usual $140,000 just to pay Gross's and Kari Blom's salaries and run the office, plus $120,000 for Forward Madison 2, the LAIC's second five-year plan for making Madison magnificent. Right now, that Forward Madison money is designated for marketing the city.
Commissioner Nick Abraham balked at appropriating $120K for a single line-item that just says "marketing." He expressed distaste for appropriating $140K to pay salaries with no city oversight or control. He wants more detail and more accountability, just as he has pressed the LAIC throughout his tenure on the city commission.
But the difference last night was that other commissioners expressed agreement that the LAIC has not been sufficiently accountable in its use of city funds. Commissioner Dick Ericsson, the godfather of the modern LAIC, said there has been a "disconnect" in the LAIC office. Ericsson acknowledged that the LAIC has been far too secretive.
Gross acknowledged that the LAIC doesn't need to spend all of the city's Forward Madison contribution on marketing and suggested it could be used for other projects. Dr. David Borofsky, DSU interim president and LAIC board member, noted that the Forward Madison brochure declares "retail development in downtown" as one of its goals and says the LAIC will pursue that goal.
Gross also promised that she would offer the commission quarterly updates on how the LAIC is spending the city's money. She said she will come to the commission on October 8 with a more detailed budget to support the LAIC's budget request. Commissioner Mike Waldner welcomed those updates. Commissioner Scott Delzer indicated that the LAIC hired Gross with the directive to do what she does well: to communicate. He praised her promised e-mail updates on LAIC activity as a welcome change. (And permit me to jump for the moment on that communication backwagon: Gross sent out her first LAIC e-mail update yesterday. A friend forwarded it to me; I e-mailed Gross and asked if she would add me. She replied and added me to her distribution list in six minutes.)
So I'm hearing the LAIC exec, LAIC members, and the city commission all saying the LAIC will be more open and accountable. I'm seeing the LAIC exec make a greater effort to be more accessible, even as she takes on a new job where she's still learning the ropes.
And then to top it off, in the midst of his remarks, Dr. Borofsky, whose welcome to Madison included some rough blogging from me, complimented the comment I made to the commission earlier about following the Main Street program. He said that back in New Hampshire, he worked for the Chamber of Commerce. His town looked very hard into doing the Main Street program. It would have been great for their downtown, but, he explained to me after the meeting, the only reason they didn't do it was that they didn't have an economic development office with a staffer to coordinate the program.
We have an economic development office. That office has requested $120,000 from the city for Forward Madison 2. That office admits it only needs $60,000 for marketing... meaning it could use the other $60,000 to hire a full-time coordinator for a serious Main Street program.
Does any of this sound familiar?
We could be two meetings away from launching a Madison Main Street program: one city budget meeting to designate funding with firm downtown strings attached, one LAIC board meeting to authorize... and holy crap! We could do this thing!
Now please understand, I feel like FDR and Churchill deciding to throw in with Stalin to beat Hitler (I will not let Dick Ericsson outdo me in hyperbole). When I imagine total victory for my conception of downtown development, I envision Ashley Kenneth Allen ousting Mayor Hexom, dissolving the LAIC, pouring all previous LAIC funding into a new city economic development office, and appointing my wife and me as co-czars (just say it: co-czar!) in charge of downtown revitalization.
In the real world, we're not going to get an additional city office, let a lone a thrilling coup d'état. In the real world, where compromise and pragmatism rule, the best result we can practically achieve may be that Julie Gross decides to put her stamp on the LAIC by taking it in a new, active, downtown direction. The LAIC board, hearing the public clamor and tells Julie to go for it. The LAIC brings on a new staffer, holds real public meetings (key word again: World Café!)...
...and in five or ten years, I write a blog post saying, "Holy cow: the LAIC helped us build a better downtown and a stronger sense of community. Good work, Julie... and good work, Madison!"
I'd really like to write that blog post... and maybe write it from the sidewalk table at Mochavino as I look out at folks competing for parking spots out front of ten new downtown retail stores. Last night's city commission meeting gives me hope that I might get to write that post.
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After the meeting, I learned one more bit of important history relevant to Madison's downtown development. Dick Ericsson said that back in the day (1960s? 1970s?), banker Ed Dirksen owned at least seven buildings downtown. The moment one of them went vacant, Dirksen hustled to bring in a new business. He charged relatively low rent and lost money on his buildings. But he built and maintained good Main Street buildings because he believed in downtown. He didn't want business leaking away to the highway or the edge of town. He apparently shared the belief that Main Street is the heart of a community. If it's in good shape, if you have people who are willing to fight to keep it in good shape, then your whole town is in good shape.
We need someone, some group, maybe the whole dang town, to be the contemporary Ed Dirksen. LAIC, that ball's in your court. Call the meeting!