Here's a Madison marketing moment that made me want more than ever to resurrect the downtown Lake Park Hotel:

My wife and I splurged last night and took the little one out for supper at Pizza Ranch (we had a coupon, so Junior could eat free). As we got out of the Bug, a minivan pulled up behind us, and the gentleman at the wheel leaned out and asked if he could bother me. While my wife unbuckles our child from her crash gear (notice nobody calls child safety seats that?), I amble up to the van, ready to give directions. The gentleman says he and his wife are looking for Madison's downtown. They'd just come from the west on 81/34. With much eager gesticulation, I tell them to keep going the way they're going and turn right at the light, a block past Sunshine. (With a twinge of sadness, I avoid mentioning the grand but potently vacant Masonic temple at the heart of our city).

The couple ask quite complimentarily if I'm a tour guide. I say no, I'm just eager to help people find their way and spend their money in town, as any good community booster ought to do.

Then they say they are looking forward to spending the night downtown. Our crests fall. Our chaps and chops fall. I have to tell our guests (from Winnipeg, it turns out!) Madison offers no lodging downtown. We look behind us at the Super 8, and Erin and I can't verify whether they've emerged from bankruptcy and reopened. We note the other two places to stay, the now foolishly misnamed "US 34" Motel to the west and the Americinn to the southeast, both on the edge of town, neither walkable, neither even attached to a sidewalk.

Our guests thank us and head east to at least dinner downtown before settling down for a night at the motel with a view of the highway and none of our local charms. In a flash, I get this vision of shunting our guests off to the empty fringe of town, of holding them at arm's length instead of embracing them at the very core of our community.

More practically, I realize the automatic marketing advantage a good downtown hotel has. These Winnipeggers knew nothing about Madison other than that it was the closest spot to sunset on their map. They assumed that if our little map-bump had anything to offer, the logical place to look was downtown, Main Street. Travelers have been on the road all day. When they stop, they want to get off the highway and be in a place. Many travelers will drive right by all those establishments on the edge of town, because they want to see what's really in town first. Build your hotel downtown, give folks who've been driving all day the chance to park the car and use their feet, and you instantly grab market share with no more advertising than a big sign out front reading, "Welcome to Main Street! Sleep here!"

Madison needs a downtown hotel, a new Lake Park Hotel (though I think I'm leaning toward calling it the General Beadle). Perfect models: the Calumet Inn in Pipestone and the Taos Inn in New Mexico. The Taos Inn's renowned Adobe Bar is known as "The Living Room of Taos." The Taos Inn is an integral part of the town's daily life, with locals coming in all the time for a beer, a band, or just a chat and a chess game in the big lounge. (When's the last time you, my local neighbors, set foot in either of Madison's motels?) For a night or two, travelers can feel like a part of the community, not like strangers isolated out on the edge of town by rushing highway that urges them to hurry along.

Opportunity awaits downtown. Knock down that Jensen building eyesore that my friend Jon must lament out his office window each day and replace it with a new Lake Park. Buy the Dakota Drug building and renovate it into a General Beadle Inn perfectly situated between a restaurant, book store, and coffee shop. A good hotel will bring money and life to Madison's downtown.