Envisioning Downtown

Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it used to be that one could sum up the majority of Downtown Madison Incorporated’s efforts with one word: Frostiball. For more than two decades, DMI has pulled off the rare feat of enticing hundreds of sleeveless Wisconsinites downtown in the dead of winter to bring attention and funding to the beating heart of the city. But over the past several years, there has been a significant shift in DMI’s agenda, and the organization has undeniably morphed into an advocacy, outreach and political force to be reckoned with.

“We didn’t have a negative reputation back then,” says ten-year DMI president Susan Schmitz, “but people had a tendency to ask us, ‘What do you do?’ We weren’t in the middle of the policy making, the politics, the real grit of what does make a difference if you’re advocating for the health and vitality of downtown.”

They’re certainly there now. It started in 2003 with No Dane Casino, which marked the first time DMI threw its hat in the political arena. For months a core group of DMI members, including past DMI chair and current MG&E exec Scott Neitzel, worked on little else. Concerned with what a new casino on the outskirts of the city would mean for downtown Madison, they lobbied the county, the city council, the mayor’s office and the court of public opinion—and they won. From there, DMI began interviewing and endorsing candidates in the aldermanic races citywide, because as the downtown goes, so goes the region.

“It wasn’t only the casino and aldermanic involvement,” says Neitzel. “It was a recommitment to doing the basic blocking and tackling of making sure that city committees were monitored, that we had the presence on issues of concern to us at the council, because we felt we had to be in on the ground floor as policies were developed and become a resource that alders, city staff and committee members could go to on public policy issues.”

DMI now has its hands in everything political downtown, from TIF to Regional Transit Authority, from policy making to responsible development and a new initiative to develop the nighttime economy. The DMI-sponsored, fifteen-member Downtown Hospitality Council brings together representatives from public safety, the development community, the hospitality community and best practices advocates to problem solve and develop a nighttime economy that will include music, food, entertainment and shopping opportunities with safety and transportation issues in mind.

Though the DHC is still for the most part in the discussion phase, a couple of tangible pieces have come out of it thus far including a best practices draft, where downtown stakeholders such as bar and restaurant owners are committing ideal standards to paper.

Katherine Plominski, a member of the DHC and the city’s alcohol policy coordinator, implemented a downtown cabstand that formerly operated on University Avenue between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m. Cabs queued up and patrons could avoid phone calls and wait times.

“There’s an initiative at the state level to put the hammer down on drunk driving, but at the same time you’ve got to look at the alternatives,” says Plominski. “What is prohibiting people from taking alternative transportation home? What we found in Madison is it is an accessibility factor.”

The alcohol policy coordinator position is funded in equal parts by the city and the university. She serves as a liaison between stakeholders such as the city, county and state, law enforcement, neighborhood groups, student organizations, alcohol-licensed business establishments and DMI.

Smart Growth Greater Madison executive director Carole Schaeffer is also a member of the DHC.

“The exciting thing about these groups is you’ve got people that are full time committed to working with the city, with the development community, with the business owners and the people that make it all happen, and it works because it brings balance,” says Schaeffer. “You’ve got voices that understand the system and care passionately about what happens to downtown Madison.”

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

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