By Neil Heinen
I had lunch recently with Downtown Madison Incorporated president Susan Schmitz, which is always time well spent. She gave me a copy of DMI's 2014 Civic Agenda hot off the press. She's clearly proud of the direction her board has agreed on, and her enthusiasm is contagious. And it is a solid plan, a mix of visions and actions that are not just rooted in sound urban policy but distinctly Madisonian. But it was impossible for me to separate the issues DMI has identified as integral to an agenda for 2014 from the energized and necessary discussions our community is having around racial disparities, school performance, housing and homelessness, the growth of the downtown and city-wide economic development. Because any civic agenda for a city center needs to take those issues into account and, with a little reading between the lines, I think this one does.
What I don't mean to suggest is that this is necessarily an easy fit. Any downtown plan will of course be about business growth, employment, transportation and quality of life. But here in Madison, especially now, civic goals have to include diversity and inclusiveness throughout the community, and that includes downtown.
There's a lot of new energy downtown. While it is legitimate to debate who can afford to live in the central city and who cannot, the housing boom is driven by demand and that demand is from young professionals and retired Boomers with money, to name just a few. We Boomers are a mixed bunch. But I feel comfortable saying that I've witnessed in the young professionals group, especially the tech entrepreneurs who are helping give shape to a revitalized East Washington Avenue corridor, a commitment to community problem solving that is as refreshing as it is needed. I believe the answer to the lament about Madison's predilection for talk, meetings and more talk is what appears to be the similarly generational instinct among young techies to just do it. Want to do something about the achievement gap? Invite a class to visit your startup. Want to reduce disparities in employment and income? Partner with diverse organizations to find people from different cultures to work with. Want to reduce prison disparities? Get to know the poor and homeless and show them respect and dignity and a way out.
Here's the point: DMI's 2014 Civic Agenda is an invitation to that kind of engagement in a blueprint of growing the tax base, addressing public safety, transportation and parking, improving city policies, and emphasizing the arts, our world-class university and our physical assets. Specific action steps include supporting primary and secondary education, supporting quality childcare and addressing the homeless challenges in downtown Madison.
But here's the kicker. As we talked, Schmitz lavished praise on employees in city departments like planning, transportation and development. Think about that for a minute. How often do you hear of businesspeople and government employees working together effectively and with mutual respect? "The high quality of city staff is a constant in our community," says Schmitz. "They are committed, experienced, smart and comfortable working with the private sector."
Madison's downtown plays a pretty important role, perhaps the most important role, in the Madison of the future. Neither City Hall nor downtown businesses can pull that load alone. The most encouraging aspect of DMI's 2014 Civic Agenda is Schmitz's contention the city and the downtown business community are on the same page. Talk about best places to work.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.
Find more of his columns here.