Five weeks after local boosters proposed a downtown development task force to the Madison City Commission, four weeks after a group of citizens stepped forward to volunteer their services for that task force, and three weeks after the Lake Area Improvement Corporation wrote the mayor saying, "Let's do it!" the Madison City Commission has finally taken action on the proposal. They've passed the buck.

O.K., maybe that's not entirely fair. Monday night, the Madison City Commission acknowledged the LAIC's willingness and ability to manage such a task force and said, basically, o.k., fine, you do it.

Let's look at the LAIC letter that the commission sat on for three weeks. (I'd link to the PDF in the August 13 agenda packet, but the city deletes this useful public information from its website after four weeks.)

July 25, 2012

Dear Mayor Hexom,

At our recent Lake Area Improvement Corporation planning session, the board reviewed goals of the Forward Madison 2 initiative which was comprised of two components. The second component focuses on retail development and marketing. This includes working with local and regional retailers to encourage expansion into Madison and Lake County.

As you know, there have been numerous discussions about revitalizing downtown Madison. This will require time, commitment and the ability to involve a broad base of community leaders and citizens in the process. This is not an easy task, but the LAIC board feels confident we can lead the taskforce.

An undertaking of this magnitude will require appropriate funding and staff which we have in place. We are asking you and the city commissioners to give us your support for leading the taskforce. With a positive, cooperative and progressive attitude we will strive to ensure Downtown Madison grows and prospers.

Thank you for your consideration, please contact me if you have questions or need further clarification.

Kind regards,
Julie Gross
Executive Director
Lake Area Improvement Corporation

I want to read in Gross's letter, as I did in statements from Gross and others at the July 16 commission meeting, significant changes from past LAIC position and practice.  First, we get the clear signal that our business leaders are ready to include retail development in their economic development efforts. The LAIC and city ordinance used to explicitly exclude retail recruitment from their purview, because Madison's business leaders felt Madison's retail sector was doing just fine. City ordinance still forbids the use of community development fund money for retail businesses (see Section 2-152, paragraph 2, Community Development Fund Eligibility Requirements). Madison's leaders are finally acknowledging the retail decline that has taken place right before their eyes for over 20 years. Accepting that you have a problem is the first step to a solution.

Gross's letter speaks of involving "a broad base of community leaders and citizens." Broad, open participation has previously meant open to those who write broad checks. And as a quasi-public/private organization, the LAIC still keeps its meetings and minutes and documents under wraps, away from public accountability. I remain suspicious of the city's decision to move the downtown development task force from its necessarily, statutorially public and accountable forum to the exclusive and secretive meeting table of the LAIC. We can only hope that Gross's letter signals a willingness to open the doors and recognize that downtown revitalization is not one of the topics that the LAIC has to keep secret.

The Yankton City Commission discussed retail development as well last Monday. Yankton's commissioners really like the idea of hiring an administrative assistant to the city manager who would focus on retail development and events planning. Madison doesn't have a city manager to administratively assist. Handing retail recruitment to the LAIC may fit most easily into Madison's current bureaucracy. But Yankton's model of bringing these economic development duties in-house, as Ashley Kenneth Allen proposed at the July 16 Madison City Commission meeting, better guarantees direct public accountability.

Whether the downtown development project is run from an office in City Hall or down at the LAIC/CHamber depot, Gross's letter recognizes the need to invest significant resources in downtown revitalization. The LAIC appears willing to spend its significant Forward Madison 2 funds on this project. That's encouraging.

The only question I raise here pertains to Gross's statement that the LAIC has in place the necessary funding and staff. If the LAIC is going to follow the official Main Street program (the LAIC letter doesn't mention that program, but let's not forget it! Main Street is the obvious, road-tested template for exactly what Madison wants to do!), that program will likely need a full-time coordinator. The LAIC has two staff members, Julie Gross and Kari Blom. They're great, but unless the LAIC is about to drop some other function and make Main Street its sole focus, their plates are full. The LAIC should support investing a big portion of its Forward Madison 2 dollars in a full-time downtown development coordinator to facilitate community conversations, manage the emerging plans, and make things happen.

I want to believe that the LAIC can make downtown development work. As I said last month, a task force led by Julie Gross and the LAIC board may be the best route we can hope for in the Madison context to achieve our common downtown goals.

But now let's judge by action. Let's see whom the LAIC names to the downtown development task force. Let's see how much effort the LAIC makes to engage the public in a real information-seeking, consensus-building, problem-solving conversation, not just a hierarchical ego-stroking marketing pitch for some card-table mafia's not-so-hot idea. Let's see democracy driving our dollars, not dollars driving our democracy.