[Note: this post discusses the views of Ashley Kenneth Allen, who is also the newest advertiser on the Madville Times. Readers may draw and post their own conclusions as to the accuracy and fairness of this article.]
Madison City Commission candidates Ashley Kenneth Allen and Jeremiah Corbin both serve on Madison's Downtown Revitalization Taskforce, which launched in October, 2012.
Or at least they did until yesterday. The restart of the downtown thrift store plan has provoked Allen to suspend his participation in this committee, at least until the end of the election. In a sharply worded missive sent to committee members, Mayor Roy Lindsay, and the local media, Allen says the surprise thrift store announcement has tested his trust in the thrift store organizers and the downtown committee.
I yield the floor to Mr. Allen to explain his discontent:
The Downtown & Beyond Committee was formed when the city commission tabled the request for the "Thrift Store" proposal and directed the LAIC and Chamber of Commerce to form a downtown improvement committee with the intent to gain public feedback and hold public meetings on future development. This was to create transparency in the economic development process and promote good relations with the community. This project was talked to "death" in May and June of 2012. But even after the majority of the community said NO to this plan, the power players in the group proposing this thrift store told me that the project would move forward with or without city support. This brazen attitude surprised me. They did not even attempt, or want to attempt, to open the thrift store as a "trial" in one of the many other spaces available on mainstreet at the time. Why not prove your business plan before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new building?
Since June of 2012, I have seen NO public meetings regarding this project, nothing has been discussed in the local media about revisiting the project, and I have heard nothing discussed with the Downtown and Beyond Committee about moving this project forward. Our local leaders that are part of the boards of the LAIC and the Community Foundation have also not made any public statements on this project in the last two years. The idea behind continuing to fund the LAIC and the Forward Madison 2 project was that half of the money would be used to focus on downtown and retail development in the next phase. In almost two years time, we don't have much to show for it. We completed a survey last year (with results yet to be released because we seem to be protecting specific Chamber of Commerce business members), one downtown store relocated across the street, a specialty shop opened up in one of the stores considered to be demolished for the thrift store, and another store has recently closed. The results of the 2013 survey strongly showed that the biggest desire of Madison residents is to have more options for grocery shopping, not thrift store shopping. Recently, a local woman started a petition to get Hy-Vee to move to town. That petition has almost 500 signatures. There is clearly other needs that are not being met in Madison that should be addressed by the Downtown and Beyond Committee, the LAIC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Community Foundation. The public is being very vocal and we are not listening.
We have yet to craft a grand vision for what our downtown will look like in the next ten years. I had hoped we would partner with the city, local businesses, and community organizations to form a new downtown district plan similar to what was accomplished by Brookings in the last ten years. I am still hopeful this can happen, but recent actions really make me question the honesty and openess of the Community Foundation, the Lake Area Improvement Corporation, and the Chamber of Commerce. I have discussed options with the Mayor and others recently and I like the ideas of using TIFs for fixing our blighted areas on mainstreet. This would be a good start.
I feel we have not learned our lessons from the 2012 debacle. The biggest reason the community was against this in the past was because there was no public input and it was not fulfilling one of the biggest "needed" items in the eyes of the citizens. It was "dropped" on us from the local power players. You cannot call this a "community" thrift store when the community has been left out of the planning process.
This could have been a HUGE project for Madison. We could have built a multi-purpose building on mainstreet that met the needs of multiple entities. We could have made this a building that housed a thrift store, but also a grocery co-op & farmer's market, the local food pantry, small retailer incubator areas, direct marketing booths (Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, 31, etc.), an art gallery, music performance space that was indoors/outdoors, a community gathering "third place", etc. --- Instead, all we are going to get is this limited thrift store. What a disappointment.
Instead of viewing the constructive criticism given by the public in 2012 as a chance for improving the project, the organizers bundled it up and took it private. Instead of "community" building to get support for this project, they went back to "business as usual" and defaulted back to Madison's status quo of power plays and secret meetings.
The idea that this is not tax payer funded is just a lie. The city helped purchase this property and the LAIC managed it for the city. There may not be direct funding from City Hall for the thrift store, but indirectly many tax dollars are being used. We have yet to see a business plan, estimate for employees, number of employed workers vs. volunteers, a plan on how to get good quality items donated to the store, hours of operation, etc. etc. The only thing that we have a is a carefully crafted press release that has Mr. Johnson stating "This financial support, which is well over half the projected cost, shows that many agree with the task force in their belief that the project is "absolutely worthwhile". So who are the sponsors? Why not go on record and list the donors. Why does this have to be so secretive? I for one hope there is NO Forward Madison 2 money being dedicated to this project. The LAIC is already handing over a lot by transferring this property to the Community Foundation Inc. We can continue to pretend that these organizations are not "arms" of the city, but the reality is these three corporations would find it difficult to exist without city funding support.
This whole project smells of crony capitalism. I have had many local residents contact me in the last two days that are very upset with this proposition. It is bad public relations for the city, for the LAIC, and the Community Foundation. The situation was handled poorly and not in an open, honest, and transparent method that should be expected from our local leaders and corporations.
I had hoped for more leadership on this issue from your organizations and expected more community involvement. There is a real need for affordable food, clothing, and household goods in Madison. There is also a real need for charity. Because of how this project is being handled, I fear it will split the community and create more divisions, rather than bringing us all together for a worthwhile charitable project.
I hope you will take this constructive criticism as an opportunity to improve the process. We all want to have Madison succeed and move forward. There is still time to reconsider and do something bigger with this project [Ashley Kenneth Allen, open letter, 2014.03.07].
Allen reflects my own disappointment about the lack of community engagement on this "community" project. If the project organizers want to contend that their privately organized project is under no obligation to submit to public scrutiny, I can live with that, as long as they can satisfy Allen's concerns that they really aren't tapping public resources through the LAIC.
My political concern is that Allen's complaint won't help him win the city election. Dissent and disagreement are essential to democracy, but Madison voters aren't used to candidates having real disagreements. Gene Hexom will say Allen is just being negative, a naysayer, and not a team player. Allen's abdication of the downtown committee, even if reasonable in recognizing that the downtown committee is actually powerless to drive downtown development, may convey exactly that impression. And a fair number of voters will roll along with Hexom, not wanting to be troubled by vigorous debate and dissent.
I agree that we should not spend any taxpayer dollars to help a few private developers build a store that will compete against existing businesses to fulfill a market need that almost no one views as a priority for downtown revitalization. But if those developers and their rich friends think a thrift store is the best use for their mad money, and if they can make it happen within the law and without public subsidy, I'm not sure there's much the voters can do to stop them.