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Madison Thrift Store Plan Wastes Tax Dollars, Decreases Accountability

The other day I saw Jerry Johnson, one of the lead organizers of the plan to build a publicly subsidized thrift store on Madison's Main Street. He said he'd seen that there were a "couple of comments" on the blog about the plan.

At last count, there were 54 comments on the topic here. Let us hope Mr. Johnson's count is mere Scandinavian understatement, not an indication of the community thrift store steering committee's facility with numbers.

Johnson told me his committee was preparing a Question & Answer sheet on the project. The City of Madison has posted that Q&A sheet on its website... in typical bad PDF format. Heavens forfend that the City realize how much easier it is to copy and paste text from an electronic document into a nice, simple, copyable 50-kilobyte HTML page than to scan five pages, turn it into a seven-magebyte PDF with skewed pages and a sideways image, and upload it to your server. Sigh.

Worth noting first is that this Q&A document wasn't produced until after the less-than-successful pitch at the May 29 city commission meeting. The Q&A says that the "comprehensive proposal" was developed after "six months of discussions with many people." You'd think that at some point during all those discussions, someone would have said, "Hey, we're hearing a lot of good questions. We should write them down, write down answers, and distribute a fact sheet before we take this proposal to the city commission." But no. In Madison, we distribute information like this not to get public buy-in from the start, but only after we find we aren't going to get a free pass to do whatever we want and thus need to do some counter-marketing damage control.

The committee justifies its request for an ongoing subsidy from the county thus:

The Lake County Commission is being asked to support this project because they are the governmental entity responsible for indigent care and the welfare needs of the citizens of Lake County. In return, the Thrift Store's net revenues will be used to help support many of the same programs and requests [Community Thrift Store Steering Committee, "Community Thrift Store Q&A," City of Madison website, 2012.06.07].

Now consider how the thrift store will help carry out the county's indigent-aid functions:

Once store expenses including debt service, utilities, insurance, maintenance reserve fund and staff salaries are covered, net proceeds of the store will support programs operated by ICAP [Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership] in Lake County. These may include rent and utility assistance, as well as other local unmet needs which may include minor medical expenses such as medication, gas for out-of-town medical appointments, eyeglasses, dental expenses and car seats for children. A Community Thrift Store Advisory Board will be formed to make these determinations on a case-by-case basis [Q&A, 2012.06.07].

Two problems:

First, suppose you have $43,000 to spend on support for the poor. You could give that $43,000 straight to the poor. Or you could sink that money into a store, pay the mortgage and electricity and insurance and staff, put some in a reserve fund, ask people to donate junk from their basements, and hope you sell enough of that junk to have some money left to give to the poor. Which plan do you choose? KISS or Rube Goldberg?

Second, consider the shift of power that goes with that money. Right now, your elected officials on the county commission decide how to spend your tax dollars on indigent assistance. They answer to you. The thrift store boosters want to get their hands on your tax dollars and make decisions for you. In another grand example of the dangers of administrative passive voice, their decision-making Advisory Board "will be formed" by... well, whom? What process? A public vote? To whom will the advisory board answer?

The steering committee seems to co-opting a basic public service, putting your tax dollars through a very inefficient wringer, and usurping power with no apparent public accountability.

The thrift store committee wants to lock up over a million dollars in public and private funds, plus ongoing tax dollars from the county and volunteer labor from the community to sustain this Rube-Goldberg plan. There are simpler, more direct, and more publicly accountable ways for us to help our neighbors and revitalize Madison's Main Street.

Update 19:12 CDT: I'm reviewing the partial results of the "Buy Local" survey conducted by some of the Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Madison students in fall 2010. That survey did not appear to recommend a publicly subsidized thrift store as a primary solution for Madison's retail woes. (As I predicted, the Lake Area Improvement Corporation appears not to have followed up on those survey recommendations.)


  1. Erin 2012.06.10

    The problem with a thrift store is that it doesn’t really add any value to the downtown area. Yes, it will be good to clean up that area of Main Street (which is something that could be accomplished with any number of other downtown revitalization projects). And yes, thrift stores are good. But thrift stores generally don’t drive people to a downtown area. What does? Quality retail (a variety of specialty shops), restaurants, coffee shops, art centers, and theatres, as well as outdoor community gathering spots.

    A new thrift store—and I don’t really care how nice and new the building will be—is simply not going to excite me enough to want to come downtown and spend my money. But that’s what Madison needs. We need to give people places to spend their money. As others have pointed out, we already have a number of thrift/consignment stores.

    Coincidently, as I read this post and the Q & A sheet, I also saw a post on my Facebook feed from a friend who’s an economic development director in Wisconsin and has significant experience with downtown revitalization programs. An hour ago he posted a photo of a historic building in the small town where he’s the executive director of the town revitalization program (in a town with a population of 1,400!!!). Plans are underway to turn this building into a 20,000-square foot center for a theatre, a gallery, retail, and live/work space for artists.

    Now which new building will create interest and pull people to the downtown core to spend time and money? Which building project sends the message that this community is thriving and growing? Which project will create more real spending opportunities to expand the tax base? Which project communicates “revitalization” and which one says “same old, same old”?

  2. Charlie Johnson 2012.06.10

    The idea of a thrift store needs move off the radar screen. There is better ideas out there to "invigorate" main street. As to providing dollars for indigient care through the use of a thrift store--really? Just asking but if we want to continue the money shuffling, moving dollars for moving sakes, how about using the sales tax rebate money that the city of Madison is sending in Custom Touch direction.? It's all a subsidy, right?

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.10

    But Erin, didn't you read the line at the bottom of page 5 that says this thrift store will "provide inexpensive... products that people need every day"? That won't get you to come spend your money?

  4. John Hess 2012.06.10

    These needs are already being covered by current businesses. On the other hand everyone wants lower priced grocery items.

  5. Carter 2012.06.10

    I'm really becoming a fan of the grocery store idea people have proposed. You know that a box of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios costs almost twice as much here in Madison than it does in Brookings?

    I visit my parents about once a month and go through Brookings to get there and back, and I'm strongly considering just buying a month's worth of groceries when I'm there, and hauling them back to Madison.

    Someone should open another grocery store. Is Shopko going to expand Pamida's grocery section at all?

  6. grudznick 2012.06.10

    My granddaughter says your town needs to put a Trader Joe in that thrift store. I'm not sure what that really means but if you have a guy named Joe who can trade thrifty things, you should have a really swell downtown very quickly.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.10

    Tell your granddaughter to stop by and visit here at Lake Herman!

    Carter, I wish I knew Shopko's plans. I can't blame you for considering the monthly Brookings haul. Hy-Vee makes my breakfast affordable.

  8. grudznick 2012.06.10

    This thrift store idea is closer to genius than it is to a power grab by the heinous Madison council of city fathers. If you hand a man $43,000 he will spend it unwisely and come begging for more. If you teach him to make a little money by being thrifty and selling used things like a rummage yard, then he can keep himself fed for years. Even Mr. Howie would agree with me on this.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.10

    Come on, Grudz, don't clutter up a real local issue with your B.S. ideology and obsession with arguing with me. There is no connection between this store and any educational outreach. The money is not going simply to folks working in the store. The store organizers are talking about providing the same indigent handouts the county does. We get less return on our tax dollar and less public accountability from this project than from direct assistance from the county.

  10. grudznick 2012.06.10

    OK, Mr. H, I am sorry and will refrain from further comments on your thrift store/local community revitalization issue, but I do retain the right to call your ideology B.S. at a later date.

    You owe me one, because when you call my ideology "B.S." it's like when Mr. Howie says that only his ideology is the way to think.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.10

    I owe you zilch. Your ideological point is simply irrelevant to the issue at hand.

  12. grudznick 2012.06.10

    If you had said ideological B.S. it would have been less hurtful and less Howie then you saying B.S. ideology, but that's just you being mean and judgmental and all holier than others.

    I'm sorry and will try and keep my B.S. ideology to myself.

  13. Linda 2012.06.10

    Where is this $900,000+ going to come from? Where is the city going to come up with money to spend for this; they had no money to invest in the school renovation project which was said to be an economic boost for Madison. Who is going to be left to pay the bill when this new building fails to live up to its promises and goes belly up? And who stands to gain by selling the land for this project? All questions that someone should be asking. If the LAIC is going to be in charge of this, will they be as "transparent" and forthright with their accounting practices as their history has shown?!

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.10

    Possible cause for concern: the $150K request of the city would take the form of $150K handed directly to the LAIC. Does the LAIC not already have within its budget enough money to make a project happen with the Jensen building? Has it given up on trying to find a private buyer for that building?

  15. Eve Fisher 2012.06.11

    The one person I talked to who sort of thinks the thrift store is an ok idea thought so because of "increased sales tax revenues." When I asked, why not a grocery store, they agreed that would be infinitely better. Here is my suggestion: Go to the Hy-Vee website:

    ...and ask them to build a Hy-Vee in Madison, South Dakota. Perhaps if we get enough Lake County people asking for it, it might come.

    Meanwhile, since the proposed thrift store is supposed to be the repository for things that would otherwise go to the landfill, I don't believe for a minute that it will be full of items I want to buy.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.11

    Or, Eve, how about getting Fareway to come up from Iowa and establish its beachhead in South Dakota?

  17. Michael Black 2012.06.11

    Brookings has ONE grocery store and Walmart.

    If a city the size of Brookings cannot support more than one grocery store, what would drive someone else to open another store in Madison with far less population?

    Sunshine is NOT evil. The Roeman family is part of the community.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch people. In order to have a business, you have to make a profit. If we do not sell pictures to people, we don't eat. It's the same way if you sell cars or ice cream cones. You have to charge enough to cover your overhead and pay yourself too. You cheat yourself, your family, and your community by working long hours for no compensation.

  18. Carter 2012.06.11

    Michael, Brookings has always had two grocery stores for as long as I can remember. Before Walmart, they had Econo-Foods, which stuck around until Walmart started their grocery bit. Now they have Walmart and, as always, Hy-Vee. I think they had more than two in the late 80s and early 90s, unless I'm mistaken.

    No one is saying Sunshine is somehow "evil", we're saying they charge twice as much for Cheerios as Brookings does. Didn't they just buy up Mr. Movies to build a rather nice liquor store? I don't think they're exactly hurting for money. Maybe if they have money for buying Mr. Movies, they have money for not charging twice the price for Cheerios. It would make sense.

  19. larry kurtz 2012.06.11

    Back when woolly mammoths roamed East River, Dairy Bacteriology was where we went for ice cream, to The Jungle for coffee, Nick's to see Cross-eyed Mary.

    Spies, Red Owl, and that little market at 6th and Medary handled most everything else.

  20. Eve Fisher 2012.06.11

    Mr. Black, how does wanting a better grocery store translate into saying that Sunshine is evil? How does wanting competition translate into wanting a free lunch? How does having a Hy-Vee and a Walmart with a full grocery store in it translate into having only one grocery store in Brookings? I'm sorry, but none of that makes any sense at all. You want a monopoly grocery store in Madison, fine, but be up front about it. Don't twist reality into its complete opposite.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.11

    Michael, we've discussed this before. Spearfish and Hot Springs each support two grocery stores (plus Spearfish has a Super Wal-Mart). Custer has two grocery stores; Hill City just ten miles up the road has another.

    Eve and Carter both hit a key point: this policy debate doesn't have to revolve around personalities at all. Madison has economic needs that the nicest people in the world aren't meeting. The thrift store plan does little if anything to meet our most pressing needs. It even unnecessarily complicates our governmental efforts to meet dire economic needs for the poor.

  22. John Hess 2012.06.11

    Tonight's paper explains you're getting just what you've been asking for. No?

    "The LAIC is being asked to support this project because it owns one of the proposed properties and also because of concerns expressed to that organization over the last several years about the need for downtown improvement and retail expansion. This project meets both of those concerns."

  23. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.11

    John, why do I get the feeling the LAIC is talking at us and not with us?

  24. Michael Black 2012.06.11

    Businesses are always looking to expand their markets. If there was a killing to be made in Madison, there would be another grocery store moving in without any help from anyone.

    I'd love to have the LAIC involved in entrepreneurship classes where possible business owners could get the education they need to write plans and create budgets.

    I'll even stir the pot farther: if you want to know what's really needed in Madison, we should not be just asking a bunch of guys.

  25. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.11

    The LAIC appears to be the last bunch of people with anything valuable to teach us about entrepreneurship. And I'm still waiting to see the written business plan and budget for the thrift store so I know whether it can produce a return on investment.

  26. Matthew Siedschlaw 2012.06.11

    Still trying to figure out how Pipestone can support 2 grocery stores. Also, how Coborn's can afford to build a brand new store in Pipestone with a population under 4500 people? If Pipestone can support 2 stores and have almost Identical retail as Madison with about 2000 less souls along with not having a college with an enrollment of over 2500 students can support all of their retail. Along with being about and Hours drive of Sioux Falls and 40 minute drive to Marshall, MN. Using them as an example I believe the LAIC and Madison Chamber of Commerce has continued to fail the residents of Madison and Lake County year after year. I am looking forward to giving the new person a chance but this thrift store is more of the same going down the wrong path.

  27. Chris 2012.06.11

    Having two grocery providers will not take away business from anyone, rather, more business will gained from the local base, who have been traveling outside of the community for their basic needs...resulting in more sales tax draw....and such thinking that having two providers of groceries will force the other out of business is short-sighted, rather I would suggest that both will compete, and excel in differing offerings, one may have the better deli and bakery, well the other may have a better butcher and organic spread...and more likely, Madison shoppers will go to both, compare pricing and quality of the products, and shop one is forcing anyone to close, and nor should that be a fear...

    Now, on the other hand, this does not necessarily prove to be the case in a flooded or boom market, where you have too many businesses offering the same products to a limited base of interest...that's another lesson that will be learned along South Egan Avenue in the coming months about 18,000 sq ft...

  28. Linda 2012.06.11

    OK, I read the Madison article on line.

    "The LAIC is being asked to support this project because it owns one of the proposed properties and also because of concerns expressed to that organization over the last several years about the need for downtown improvement and retail expansion. " Exactly, LAIC already owns part of this property. How does this benefit LAIC? Granted, a new building would be downtown improvement, but retail expansion is a whole other story and doubtful.

    "How will the community thrift store be paid for?" "Once store expenses including debt service, utilities, insurance, maintenance reserve fund and staff salaries are covered, net proceeds of the store will support programs operated by ICAP in Lake County." We taxpayers, who are asked to foot the bill for demolition and upkeep, deserve to see exactly how the monies from these donated items (which will be questionable in the first place as pointed out by others) will pay all the above expenses plus profit for "rent and utility assistance, as well as other local unmet needs which may include minor medical expenses such as medication, gas for out-of-town medical appointments, eyeglasses, dental expenses and car seats for children."

    "The Community Thrift Store Steering Committee looked at other properties on Egan Ave. and in Madison, but, due to size and accessibility issues, found no existing building appropriate for this use." One of the steering committee members has a huge existing empty building on mainstreet already; why not use this temporarily to see if this project is even feasible economically?

    "It was a priority to the committee for the thrift store to be located on Main Street to help revitalize downtown and provide a one of a kind retail option for downtown Madison." It seems that there are a few existing retail owners already on mainstreet that would disagree with this being a "one of a kind retail option for downtown Madison."

    "The store will carry clothing and shoes, household and decorative items, books, sporting goods and furniture in usable condition, and may carry other items, depending on donations." These are exactly the items already available in the existing thrift stores in Madison, and probably vouchers could be used here already.

    I would not have such a problem with trying this idea out in an existing building to see if it is economically feasible. If it is, and if it generates enough monies to cover the huge over $1,000,000 in cost, then proceed. If it isn't feasible, the city and county will not have lost a huge amount of taxpayer dollars. I just cannot see how a thrift store will generate enough tax revenue to make a huge difference in town.

    The comments here are a good start. I would hope that people get organized and make their opinions known to the steering committee and city and county commissioners.

  29. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.06.12

    Good points, all! There's a huge difference between the grocery market and the used goods market. Lots of people are expressing unmet grocery needs. Lots of people say we lack retail choices. I don't hear anyone complaining that we don't have enough consignment shops, secondhand stores, or rummage sales. Last night's MDL article acknowledges that St. John already has the clothing room... what gap is this thrift store filling?

    Linda, listen to the boosters closely, read their Q&A, and you'll see they are playing the same game Sharon Knowlton did with selling the new gym as high schoo renovation: it's not just that they have an o.k. plan, it's that there is no other way to do their plan. They can't start small (the way they insisted Erin and I had to when we proposed Beetle Days). They can't use an existing building. They can't do it without public subsidy. There is only one right way to do this plan, and that's they way an unelected private committee wants to do it.

    We have an obligation in this comment section, in the poll I just posted, and in our comments to the committee, the city, and the county, to make clear the important nuts-and-bolts questions the thrift store organizers must answer and the wealth of unmet needs in this community that alternative economic development plans could better address. And above all, we have an obligation to say that if this is a real community project, it should be built through real community dialogue, not a marketing campaign where Clark Sinclair presumes to tell us that we just don't understand what a thrift store is. (Good night, Clark: I bought half of my teacher clothes at Goodwill. I know what a thrift store is. So does the rest of town... which is exactly why so many people are questioning the viability of and need for this project.)

  30. Tom 2012.07.12

    Carter... I know I'm a few posts behind on this, but Dan Roman (sp?) already owned the Mr Movie addition to the Sunshine building. He moved into it with the liquor store after the entire Mr Movie franchise started going under and decided not to renew their lease on the space (re: Netflix and more competition from satellite, cable, and the internet).

    Micheal Black... There is an Indian grocery store in Brookings and a Hispanic grocery store and they both claimed they were doing very well last time I stopped and talked to them, but that has been several months. I believe there is also a health food store in one of those little mini malls but maybe its not there anymore. And just from eyeballing it I would say that the Walmart grocery section in Brookings is at least as big, if not bigger, than the Sunshine store in Madison. So I would definately say that Brookings is supporting two full size grocery stores and some small specialty ones. Back in the day when Madison had both a Chuck's Jack & Jill and a Spies store they both did good business -- and Madison was smaller then. The only reason we lost Jack and Jill (Foodpride or whatever they called it) was because Dan Roman's contract with Nash Finch at Jack & Jill was over and he and his partners from the other grocery stores they owned had the chance to buy up some various Sunshine and Jubilee properties. In other words, why would he want to run two grocery stores with two different distributor contracts in Madison and compete against himself? (plus, Nash Finch was a #$@% distributor)

    All I know is that when my kids were babies the price of formula and diapers in Madison was literally more than twice the price of Sioux Falls. That price difference paid for our gas to drive up there, our meal at Arby's, and after gas and food we still came out way way ahead buying in Sioux Falls. And we were dirt poor, so #$%@ Madison stores. There is a difference between buying locally on the principle of it and having the local businesses screw us in the @#$ on purpose and abuse that local hometown loyalty - which is what they do in Madison and why we need more local competition. Dan doesn't charge more because Madison is smaller or his costs are higher. You can get the same products at the other stores owned by Dan or his partners but you pay smaller Sioux Falls prices. Madison Sunshine gets its products from the same warehouse for the same price but charges Madison prices, plus the Madison employees get paid less, and Dan pays less for taxes and utilities in Madison. They roll in your money and laugh whenever you buy at Sunshine or Ace on the principle that "if I buy in Madison it supports our schools" (which it really doesn't, by the way). Dan "contributes to the community" but his partners at the other stores don't and what he contributes is a pittance compared to his profits off of us. If you buy at Sunshine in Madison and pay those ridiculous prices on some kind of principle then you are stupid. Plain and simple.

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