I think we're winning.
That's a strange thing for me to say after coming home from a Madison City Commission meeting. Madison's leaders often respond to citizen input with defensive and condescending hogwash, and we heard some of that last night. But we also heard clear signals, both on the record and off, that Madison may be ready for a little paradigm shift toward serious investment in downtown revitalization and community democracy.
My first cause for optimism (this is going to turn into more than one blog post) is thatÂ six people came to the commission last night to talk about their ideas for downtown development. An artist and historian, a businesswoman, a retired Tea Partier, a knitting novelist, a French teacher and blogger, and a telecommuting IT guy and storm chaserâ€”that's a pretty diverse group, and not one is a member of any of the local elites groups that usually control the agenda.
Our hope was to turn last week's tap dance about a downtown development task force into real action. We thus began by offering the commission five volunteersâ€”Shirley Harrington-Moore, Ashley Kenneth Allen, Gayle Maberry, Eve Fisher, and Lavonne Riedelâ€”who are willing to serve on any committee the city forms to work on downtown improvement.
Eve Fisher started by saying Madison's big problem is a lack of vision and strategic planning for its economic development activities. For a long time, Madison has simply played the Toyota lottery, trying to replicate the success it had four decades ago when it recruited Gehl. But Fisher said that in today's post-industrial economy, the big dollars are in services and tourism. She said Madison should look to places like Helen, Georgia, and Hill City for models of making an entire town a destination.
Gayle Maberry agreed with Fisher that Madison needs to rebuild downtown with a combination of retail and entertainment that draw people. She said that whenever she visits another town, she likes to see the original old buildings downtown. The quality of a town's Main Street says a lot about the community's success. Maberry said Madison needs to build on the inherent charm of downtown. She knows a lot of buildings on Madison's Main Street are in tough shape: she just acquired a second building to expand her Four Seasons Flea Market. The building was a mess, she said, but restoring these downtown buildings can be done, and it's worth it.
Dean Kooiker called for folks to get back to shopping locally. He emphasized the economic power of dollars cycling through the local economy. He urged the city to educate people to keep as many dollars as they can in this community.
Shirley Harrington-Moore said she picked Madison over Brookings when she moved four years ago. She wanted a town with a bookstore and a yarn store. Alas, our Main Street bookstore folded last summer, and Harrington-Moore bought the last yarn at Pamida's closeout over the weekend. (We don't know if the incoming Shopko will carry the craft items Pamida provided.) She says we need books and yarn back on Main Street.
Harrington-Moore said we could use a downtown movie theater with three-dollar matinees. When people come downtown for a movie, they also window-shop the neighboring stores. Movies and similar entertainment downtown bring customers for retail. Harrington-Moore also suggested a larger arts space. The Madison Area Arts Council provides a good space on a shoestring budget, but the Brickhouse is cramped. Harrington-Moore says local artists and crafters could boost downtown retail with a larger Main Street co-op storefront where they could sell their painting and knitting and hold classes.
I took a few minutes to talk to the commission not about what specific downtown development plans they should adopt, but about how they should develop those plans. The "community" thrift store proposal floundered not just because it was a bad plan, but because it was developed without community engagement.
I sketched for the commission the basics of aÂ World CafÃ© conversation: instead of convening a task force of the usual suspects to meet behind closed doors and come up with a plan, a downtown revitalization push should start with a series of public meetings. Get people together in a big downtown building (I offered to help DeLon sweep out the Masonic temple), set out a bunch of round tables, and get everyone talking. Put everyone in small groups, and pose them questions:Â What do we need downtown? Why don't we have those things now? What can we do to get those things?
Keep that process open to everybody. Document everything. Share everything. Build downtown in a process that doesn't just make people feel like decision-makers, but in which they really are decision-makers, working toward a consensus on community goals and actions.
Ashley Kenneth Allen summed up our questions and suggestions with the question of the decade: "What are we waiting for?" Jerry Johnson said last week that he heard talk on the commission ten years ago about how we needed to do something about downtown. We've got ideas. We've got money to throw at the Lake Area Improvement Corporation for economic development, which so far has produced only mixed results. Why wait?
Allen called on the city to change its outlook and ordinances from a focus on industry to a retail revitalization effort. If Madison can kickback sales taxes for industrial expansion, why not kickback dollars for retailers who expand downtown? He called on the city to bring economic development in house, to create its own public office of economic development, and dedicate staff and money to strategic planning and downtown development.
Boy, you wouldn't know Madison had all those good ideas for downtown if you got all your news from the paper, would you?*
A lot of people spoke up at the commission meeting, and a lot of people attended to hear those ideas. I take such signs of civic engagement as great cause for optimism that people in this community recognize we have problems, want to hear ideas on how to fix those problems, and want to act to solve those problems.
The Madison City Commission took no action on these proposals. We all need to keep working on that. But in response to our presentations, and in response to Julie Gross's pitch afterward for $260,000 in public funding for the LAIC, we heard signs that our leaders may be turning the corner in recognizing the need for doing the downtown development for which we and our crumbling Main Street storefronts are clamoring.
I'll tell you more about that... right after I get some breakfast!
*Update 17:07 CDT: Chuck Clement updates hisÂ Madison Daily Leader late-night special with fuller coverage of the meeting in today's paper. He changes his headline to say weÂ urged rather thanÂ argued forÂ downtown development. He still misses Dick and Gene's snarkiness... and he misses the really big story of what appears to be a paradigmatic shift at the LAIC.
KJAM's Sue Bergheim also reports, with audio!