Last updated on 2013.07.07
As I noted in my earlier post this morning, I don't usually expect positive feedback from the Madison City Commission and the Lake Area Improvement Corporation. I'm used to hearing the defensive condescension that says, "Things are great! Madison's doing fine! How dare you be negative and suggest there's a problem?!" I heard more hopeful signals than discouraging, but I want to take a moment to dispense with the brittle bushwah dished out on the record last night by Commission Dick Ericsson and Mayor Gene Hexom.
First, let's get the bad out of the way. Commissioner Ericsson rejected Ashley Kenneth Allen's suggestion that we form a downtown improvement corporation (you know, like Brookings and Sioux Falls and Vermillion have). He says such corporations are a bad idea, because we commoners just have no idea what the reporting requirements are for non-profit corporations. I beg to differ. Allen has done his own corporate paperwork. Many of us understand corporate law better than Ericsson's friends on the Madison Community Foundation, which let its paperwork slide for seven years. Believe it or not, Commissioner, your USD law degree doesn't mean you're the only person in town who understands corporate law.
Ericsson also suggested those of us proposed downtown improvements last night were somehow trying to remake Madison into Germany. Whether he was alluding to the Nazis or our current misconceptions of Western Euro-socialism is unclear, but Allen called the commissioner to task for his incendiary red herring. Ericsson later said the Germany comment was just facetious.
Ericsson's comments at this meeting and last week's show a quick defensiveness. We hear a lot about how he's chosen to spend his life here, how the community has lots of good people, how the thrift store planners are to be commended and aren't out to foist some sinister plot on us. But it seems as if Ericsson is stuck in lawyer mode: if any idea comes up that challenges him or his clients or, more importantly, his worldview that Madison is hunky-dory, he needs to marshal his courtroom skills to cast aspersions on the challengers. We didn't come last night to cast aspersions; we just came to agree with the general consensus that downtown is dying and to propose action to bring downtown back to life.
Mayor Hexom responded to our positive suggestions with his characteristically brittle defensiveness. He latched onto Dean Kooiker's comment about buying local as an opportunity to tout his own model local consumerism. Hexom claimed he and his wife don't make shopping trips out of town; they do all of their shopping locally. He said we have excellent things here in Madison. The tenor of his language again makes it sound like identifying problems and proposing solutions in Madison is somehow disloyal. And his statement that he and his wife can buy everything they need in Madison (short of certain medical supplies) ignores the fact that he's old, retired, and doesn't need much. His market needs differ greatly from those of the working mom who's trying to keep her kids in diapers and affordable cereal.
In response to the suggestion that a tax increment finance district might help revitalize downtown, Mayor Hexom couldn't resist taking a shot at past critics. He recalled the "kicking and screaming" aroused when the city issued its first TIF designation to Randy Schaefer's Silver Creek. He said that TIF works wonderfully! Maybe it gives Hexom some satisfaction to stick his tongue out at critics like me and say I was right and you were wrong! If it makes you feel better, Gene, I can agree that Randy Schaefer's TIF wasn't the end of the world. I can agree TIFs are a reasonable tool in the public policy toolbox. Now, Gene, can we let the old heartburn go and focus on using those tools for more positive solutions?
Dick and Gene regularly mention how they've lived here their whole lives. I've been a Madisonite most of my life too. I thus understand their defensiveness. I know the feeling: when we say, "I live in Madison," we feel compelled to say, "Madison's great!" We feel like we have to affirm our town in order to affirm ourselves. Conversely, when someone negates some aspect of our town—Hey, what's with those unpaved streets? Those buildings downtown are falling apart. Your movie theater's a dump—we feel as if the speaker is negating us and our life choices. And we snap back, the way Dick and Gene do.
If we're going to make any progress, boys, that talk has got to stop. Blind, self-affirming boosterism keeps us from seeing and acting on the problems in front of us.
Community development is like love. You love your wife by telling her you love her and being faithful. But you also love your wife by telling her she's got broccoli in her teeth. Love means seeing, celebrating, and defending the good. But it also means seeing, spotlighting, and fixing the bad.
And believe it or not, even as Dick and Gene rolled out the standard Madison über alles defensiveness, I heard more signals that tell me Madison may be ready for some honest problem-solving love downtown. I'll cover that big hopeful side of last night's city commission meeting at lunchtime!