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Downtown Development: Explaining Dick and Gene’s Defensiveness

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!


  1. Ashley Kenneth Allen 2012.07.17

    From the Downtown Vermillion website: (They also show pictures of a craft store with YARN!)

    "For over 150 years, shoppers have been coming to Downtown Vermillion for everything from flowers to frappes. Recently, the City created a pocket park and a beautiful plaza known as Ratingen Platz, named in honor of our sister city Ratingen, Germany. Building facelifts of both the facades and interiors have created a more pleasing and inviting environments for residents and tourists.

    A variety of shops offer gourmet food and coffee, women’s clothing and jewelry, antiques, kitchen items, candles, flowers, gifts, books, hardware, organic food and ice cream. There’s something for everyone in Downtown Vermillion!"

  2. Ashley Kenneth Allen 2012.07.17

    They did it to honor GERMANY!! OH THE SOCIALISM!

    Okay... now I am the one being a little smart. ;)

  3. Ashley Kenneth Allen 2012.07.17

    A little more context... what we could have here in Madison. Both Brookings and Vermillion started their development corporations to focus on Mainstreet in the last 10 years and have done a great job! We need to do this today. WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?!?!

    "The Downtown Vermillion Action Team (DVAT) was formed in 2005 and is Vermillion’s downtown revitalization organization. We represent and promote the unique interests of Vermillion’s largest business district. Downtown Vermillion is comprised of over 90 business locations that offer shopping, dining, art, entertainment, finance, professional services and specialty shops.

    The mission of the DVAT has been to build a coalition of downtown business/property owners for the purpose of communicating, cooperative marketing, and promoting as a collective group. We have worked toward common goals that benefit both the downtown and the entire community.

    We are actively working to:

    Retain and develop businesses
    Preserve historical character
    Assist beautification and clean-up
    Create and attract events inspiring people to enjoy downtown
    Develop community and University partnerships
    Collaborate with art and cultural entities
    Attract community and University people to utilize downtown
    Develop our downtown image and identity
    Promote and communicate as a unified group
    As the Downtown Vermillion group moves into the future, goals will be updated and new plans initiated. Our focus will remain to continue to inspire the Historic Downtown Business District to be a vibrant atmosphere that encourages people to shop, dine and enjoy the heart of the city!"

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.07.17

    Ashley: Ratingen Platz! Hilarious!

    Indeed, what are we waiting for? LAIC already says downtown revitalization and retail development is its bailiwick. I don't think we need a city commission motion. LAIC can take this ball and run with it today... as long as they invite all community members, not just big-money donors, to participate in setting the agenda, building consensus, and making decisions.

  5. Rorschach 2012.07.17

    The antics of Dick, Jane & Spot just go on year after year. The story never really changes. People get tired of their drama, and seek out other drama. Llama mama drama.

  6. Michael Black 2012.07.17

    I don't think your negative at all. You are cynical to the nth degree.

  7. WayneB 2012.07.17

    Well, the folks of Madison could do worse than model themselves after the economic powerhouse of the Eureozone... and I'm not talking goose-stepping.

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