Lighting a Fire

It’s time for Madison to assert itself, create a plan and get moving

It’s time to get serious. Madison has danced around embarking on an all-out makeover of its status, business environment, reputation and future for the better part of a decade now and if anything we’ve lost ground. We think we know who we are, but in reality we don’t. Worse, we don’t know where we’re going. And no one else knows where we’re going, either. A lot of good all those “Best of’s” have done us.

It’s time for Madison to assert itself, create a plan and get moving. And we need to do all three at once. First of all, Madison is—Madison, OK? It’s not the Greater Madison Region. It’s definitely not south-central Wisconsin. It’s eight counties give or take a county. But like Newton is Boston and Littleton is Denver and Round Rock is Austin, we’re Madison.

Not everybody loves us. People in the same state don’t like us. Get over it. If we’re going to play with the big boys and girls we have to act like the big boys and girls. Start the new businesses, create the jobs, keep making the area—Madison—a wonderful place to live and play and make money, and ignore the popularity contest. Things will work themselves out. The rest of the state needs a healthy Madison. Let’s give it to them.

But we need a plan. Yes, we have great farms and food and urban agriculture, a ton of bikes, vibrant arts and culture, a better-than-most-people-know biosciences sector, relatively resilient economy and all that. And Thrive has been working its tail off to make the most of what we do have. But put it all together and we don’t have anything that screams Madison. We have to have something that screams Madison.

The good folks at Thrive know that and they have found someone they think can help. His name is Mac Holladay and his company is Market Street Services out of Atlanta. The company has an impressive list of clients but only one really matters here: Austin. What Holladay and his team have done in Austin is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s exactly what we need here. And while we’re at it, let’s not shy away from using Austin as our model of excellence. Not Salem or Lincoln or Richmond—Austin, an economic powerhouse and a global city. Just say it: we want to be Austin. And if we’re going to be, we have to get going.

First, we need leadership. We need a team of the best minds and most influential personalities among us. The mayor has to be at the table and engaged. The chancellor of the UW has to commit. If the governor would like to be part of the team—and I can think of 250,000 reasons why he would—he would be welcome, but a high-ranking representative at the very least must participate. How about the superintendent of schools? Someone who earns their living at Overture? And absolutely the top CEOs from throughout the region. The task then is some serious sifting and winnowing. What are our assets and what are our opportunities? What can we build on and what can we build that will put us on the map? We need data and partnerships, objectives and strategic goals and then we need action steps.

I think we’ve got to hire Mac, pull together a steering committee and get this done. We’ve got to raise enough money to do it right, and we have to envision two, then four, then six years of work. And then twenty more years of work. But this is essential, folks. No more talk about being a globally competitive economic region. We have to do it, and we have to do it now.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at

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