Speaking of mediocre voter turnout, my friend and city commission candidate Ashley Allen reports that so far on what he calls a beautiful spring day, turnout for Madison's municipal election is 6.5%. That's with less than four hours left to go vote.

Really, people? Five interesting candidates to choose from, representing an interesting cross-section of Madison ages and interests, and that's all the interest we have so far?

Voters around the state, I welcome your reports of voter turnout at your local polling places on this municipal election day. I hope we hear some higher numbers as quitting time approaches!

You get the government you ask for. Declining to vote does not absolve you of blame; it lays the blame on you for not picking someone better. Get out and vote!

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Orland organic ag magnate Charlie Johnson opines Socratically on the "community" thrift store being built on Madison's Main Street:

Does anyone know if there was ever a professional study and/or survey taken verifying the feasibility of a new thrift store and building in Madison? Was there ever a public meeting held to discuss the feasibility of such a project. What is the status of the "so called downtown improvement survey of needs" that was undertaken by the downtown improvement committee under auspicious of either the Chamber of Commence or LAIC? Was the thrift store mentioned in the top 10 needs within that survey? Does the investment group building the new thrift store have a professional prepared business plan for their endeavor? [Charlie Johnson, Facebook post, 2014.04.01]

Johnson's questions elicit an interesting bit of recent local economic development history from Rick Sterling:

Charlie, Interesting that you should ask. From 1998 -2002 I was the Executive Director of the Career Learning Center in Madison. At the time our center operated a Goodwill Industries collection site near the current location of Montgomery Furniture/Lewis Drug. We collected used clothing and household goods for Goodwill. At the time several people asked us to start a Goodwill (type) store. When I talked to John Silvernail at the Lake Area Improvement Corporation about this, he said a survey had been done among the Dakota State business students who made a recommendation for such a store. When I told John that I could get grant money to make the store a reality, he said "not only no but hell no." We don't want Madison to be a "junk city" [Rick Sterling, Facebook comment, 2014.04.01].

Fascinating. Sterling says that just 15 years ago, he heard popular demand for a thrift store, but the LAIC refused to support such a project, saying it wold be bad for Madison. Now the general public is underwhelmed by the idea of a downtown junk shop, but the LAIC supports the project with free land.

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Madison City Commission candidate Ashley Allen bristles at backrooms deals in local government. In a Facebook post this week, Allen cites a blog post by Madison Daily Leader correspondent Chuck Clement (wait: did I just use blog post and Chuck Clement in the same sentence?) pointing out the oddity of state open meeting laws that allows local governments to shut out the public when they discuss economic development.

Clement knows his open meeting law; he knows that SDCL 1-25 doesn't mention economic development as a topic our local leaders can keep secret. But he discovers cities and counties are granted secret-keeping authority over economic development schemes by SDCL 9-34-19, an open meeting exemption tucked away under municiapl trade regulations:

Right among the state laws -- for pool rooms and bowling alleys, junk stores, scalpers, employment agencies, public dances, skating rinks, and tattooing and body piercing -- were the rules for closing public meetings to discuss economic development.

Either our lawmakers have a really bizarre sense of humor or they really must not want South Dakotans or anyone else to know much about government involvement in economic development. I will continue to wonder why anyone wanted to hide 9-34-19 among the rules for "Municipal regulation of food sales."

Oh, but there is one set of rules in the same chapter that fits with hiding the regulations for executive sessions - it's 9-34-16, the state's rules for "Mindreaders and fortunetellers" [Chuck Clement, "Tattooing, Junk Stores... and Economic Development?" Madison Daily Leader, 2014.03.20].

Dang: unleash Clement from the formal reporter's beat, and he brandishes a singular statutory wit.

Allen says he would like to repeal SDCL 9-34-19. Repealing state law is a bit tough from City Hall, but opening economic development discussions could happen without a legislative change. Notice that SDCL 9-34-19 says, "Any discussion or consideration of such trade secrets or commercial or financial information by a municipal corporation or county may be done in executive session closed to the public." May. We find the same non-mandatory permission in SDCL 1-25-2: "Executive or closed meetings may be held...."

State law does not order city commissions to go into executive sessions. It gives them the option, upon a majority vote. If you want an open discussion of economic development issues on a five member board, you need to get two other people to agree with you, and that discussion remains open.

So does anyone among Allen's candidates and among the commissioners they will join in City Hall share Allen's zeal for openness on economic development?

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Madison's thrift store relaunched this month as an entirely private, public-subsidy-free project. The private developers began demolition of the old Jensen building this week to make way for their downtown dream project.

But the thrift store has already received one significant public subsidy: they got the Jensen property for free from the Lake Area Improvement Corporation.

In a "sale" so fresh it hasn't entered the Lake County property tax database yet, the Madison Community Foundation acquired Lots 3 through 8, Original Plat Block 19, 213 through 219 South Egan Avenue. Here are the property tax records for those lots, still showing LAIC as the owner:

LAIC - Jensen building and lot property tax records, downloaded 2014.03.18

LAIC - Jensen building and lot property tax records, downloaded 2014.03.18

The sale record at the Lake County Courthouse indicates that the actual consideration exchanged for this property was none. LAIC exec Julie Gross confirms that the Madison Community Foundation acquired the old Jensen property for free.

Let's recall the cost at which the LAIC acquired this property. Back in 2008, the LAIC bought the above lots as well as the half-block across the street to the north from Rosebud Manufacturing for $500,000, as part of a deal to subsidize Rosebud's move out to the industrial park on the southeast corner of town. The City of Madison immediately gave LAIC $400,000 for the north part of that purchase, land that the city eventually sold to Inter-Lakes Community Action Program at a 66% loss. The LAIC, meanwhile, sold a piece of the southern half of its purchase for $35,500.

So the Jensen building and parking lot hung around the LAIC's neck at a cost of $64,500. And on March 5, the day the thrift store developers poked their heads out of their burrows and cast the shadow of their delayed thrift store back onto Main Street, the LAIC wrote off that cost and handed that property to the developers for free.

Now is that a public subsidy? It's hard to say. Julie Gross's LAIC predecessor, Dwaine Chapel, told me once that the LAIC is a quasi-public-private entity. It receives some money from private donations, but it also receives significant support from Madison and Lake County taxpayers. But like the meat and vegetables on your plate, those private and public donations all end up in the same pot. The money that bought the downtown property from Rosebud was partially public money. The loss that LAIC took on that land was thus partially a public donation... although the public never got to say anything about it.

Make no mistake: the LAIC really didn't give away much. The property has sat vacant for six years. Some developers have looked at it but decided that the building required more repairs and upgrades to its water pipes and infrastructure than would have been feasible for most business plans. Gross says that when she priced demolition of the building, she received estimates ranging from $80,000 to over $100,000. The location is great, but the building was a liability. The LAIC may be lucky that it didn't have to pay someone to take it.

But on paper, the thrift store has benefited from a giveaway, from a quasi-public purchase six years ago left to crumble until giveaway and demolition was the only viable option remaining.

Anyone care to lay odds on how soon the crumbling Masonic Temple at the other end of Main Street will meet the same fate?

11 comments

Madison City Commission candidate Jennifer Wolff is disappointed with the new downtown thrift store proposal:

Yesterday's front page news was the new community thrift store planned for Madison. Two years ago when this issue came up, it was rife with rile. So it was with a sigh of disappointment, rather than the delight of satisfaction that I read the story. Disappointment because we already have several second-hand stores in town. Disappointment because the downtown could really use a new movie theater, grocery store, or restaurant -- things we ARE lacking options of in Madison. Disappointment because this is not what I wanted [Jennifer Wolff, "On That Thrift Shop Down the Road," campaign website, 2014.03.06].

But Wolff's personal disappointment doesn't translate into full-blown political opposition:

It's tempting to malign those who make what we view as mistakes with money. A major point of contention the first time around was the thrift store's request for city funding. This time though, it appears, the project is being done with private funding. Gone is the $150,000 request for tax-payer funding. For those corporations and citizens who feel this is a worthy project, an "I know what you should do with your money better than you attitude" could serve as a turn-off for future developments. I volunteer my time and donate to charities; I would be rather affronted to have someone tell me I should be donating to Charity B instead of Charity A, or working for Charity X instead of Charity Y. Would I rather be getting a $650,000 entertainment venue? Heck yes! But I am not an investor in the project, so that's not really my value judgment to make [Wolff, 2014.03.06].

Two corrections:

  1. My count in 2012 had the thrift store backers asking for at least $300K in public subsidies. But the thrift store developers are rejecting all public funds this time around, so that's not a major point.
  2. It is your value judgment to make, Ms. Wolff. Every citizen is entitled to judge whether the thrift store adds value to Madison's downtown and economy. Ms. Wolff makes a judgment that the now wholly private project is better than nothing and is not worth the sort of open political opposition that fellow candidate Ashley Kenneth Allen offers. But she judges, as do I, that the thrift store is a disappointment, and that there are many better projects that will respond to more pressing needs that we should still work on.

Judging is good and necessary. Madison's residents are free to spend their money on whatever legal projects they wish and to discuss the merits of those projects. I am pleased to see Wolff and Allen making those judgments and leading those discussions.

11 comments

[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.

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Rep. Scott Parsley's decision to run for Senate again has left an open seat for District 8 House. And before local Dems could come up with a candidate, Republicans have found a powerful candidate, Mathew Wollmann of Madison. Check out the items Wollmann can craft into campaign power (in no particular order):

  • He's a Marine, meaning he's got the Stace Nelson vote.
  • He's a DSU computer guru, meaning he can get all wonky on cybersecurity issues (not often discussed in the Legislature, but an interesting way for a candidate to differentiate himself in the marketplace)
  • His dad Darwin is a Municipal League Hall of Fame cop, meaning he has a great resource for talking local law enforcement issues.
  • His mom Kelli is a county commissioner, meaning more relevant policy talk at family dinners.
  • He's 23. On Election Day, Wollman will be just shy of his 24th birthday. He would be the second-youngest legislator elected in South Dakota, behind David Novstrup of Aberdeen, who was elected at age 23 years 9 months. (Other young legislators: Angie Buhl won her seat at age 26; Jon Hansen and Jenna Haggar were 25 when elected, 26 when sworn in.) Say what you want about the merits of youth; Wollmann will get extra free press on that human interest angle, and free happy face time on KELO or in that Sioux Falls paper is campaign gold for a legislative candidate.
  • He's a triathlete, and there's no beating triathletes... right, Jennifer Wolff?
  • And according to Facebook, Wollmann is hanging out and playing hockey with Erin Schoenbeck. Recognizing that intelligent, confident women named Erin are awesome demonstrates Wollmann's good sense. While I impute no Machiavellian calculation to Mathew's good heart, hanging around with an Erin whose dad happens to be running to return to the Legislature in District 5 and who enjoys great esteem within the SDGOP doesn't hurt a young man hoping to get into politics.

With Russell Olson quitting the Legislature for the quiet, comfy view of Pat Prostrollo's white buffalo, the GOP needs a new golden boy. Pile all of the above together, and dagnabit, Mathew Wollmann could be that new golden boy.

So, District 8 Dems, whom do you have to run against that?

p.s.: The only ding I offer against Mathew is that darned name of his. Only one t in the first name, but two n's in the last. Not that a guy named Heidelberger should complain about the spelling of other folks' names, but expect numerous typos in articles on Wollmann's campaign, confounding reliable Googlization!

pp.s.: Wollmann evidently didn't get the generational memo: new Pew research finds that "millennials" (also with two n's), ages 18 to 33, are unmooring from political and religious institutions and voting heavily Democratic and liberal.

22 comments

The latest Madville Times poll took an  early snapshot of online support for the five candidates for Madison City Commission. The 191 votes cast (thank you, eager readers!) over the last couple days show a tight race for the two open seats:

candidate votes %
Ashley Allen 40 13%
Jeremiah Corbin 63 21%
Gene Hexom 64 22%
Kelly Johnson 63 21%
Jennifer Wolff 67 23%

With the standard online margin of error just slightly larger than the city's debt load, we see four of the five candidates in an early tie. Former mayor Gene Hexom and former school board member Kelly Johnson appear evenly matched with political newcomers Jennifer Wolff and Jeremiah Corbin.

All five candidates were tied during the first 24 hours of voting. Yesterday, Ashley Allen's support hit a strange plateau. Allen's fifth-place finish seems anomalous given that of the five candidates, he has commented most frequently on this blog. Has blog familiarity bred contempt among Madville Times readers?

Compare that to Hexom's strong showing among blog readers who have heard me regularly denigrate Hexom's blindered and brittle rein over Madison. That Hexom could come out ahead of Allen in a poll on this blog suggests that Madville Times readers are far from a mere reflection of the author's views.

For some real fun, let's look at how voters' first and second picks align:

Second Vote
First Vote  Ashley Allen  Gene Hexom  Jennifer Wolff  Jeremiah Corbin  Kelly Johnson (blank) First vote total
Ashley Allen 4 6 3 4 15 32
Gene Hexom 2 3 4 15 6 30
Jennifer Wolff 3 3 7 1 37 51
Jeremiah Corbin 2 13 5 5 15 40
Kelly Johnson 1 14 2 9 12 38
Second vote total 8 34 16 23 25 85

The strongest synergy between candidates is between the former officeholders, Hexom and Johnson. 15 of the folks who picked Hexom first picked Johnson second; 14 of the folks who picked Johnson first picked Hexom second.

Jennifer Wolff appears to have the strongest contingent of single-candidate voters. 55% of the folks who voted for Wolff did not pick a second candidate. Only 9% of Hexom's voters declined to check a second candidate. Let's step on some really thin speculative ice: does this suggest Wolff has some unique appeal? Is there a contingent of voters determined to return a female voice to the city commission?

We could flip that number on its head and suggest a challenge for Wolff and Allen: they have the lowest crossover appeal (45% and 63%, respectively), the ability to draw voters who mark a second box. Hexom and Johnson have the most crossover appeal (91% and 81%).

One more note: when we talk about state House races, we often hear that the goal in those two-slot races is to be everyone's second choice. This city commission poll may support that adage. Hexom is the only candidate who got more than half of his votes from people who clicked his name second. And sure enough, he came in second overall, by one vote.

The Madison city election is April 8: stay tuned for more exciting local politics!

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