Downtown’s Worth the Investments

From asparagus to academics, the economic impact our central city has in our community is, in a word, astounding

As the “Downtown 2000” plan was being prepared in the mid-1980s, its drafters felt it necessary to deny that Downtown was dead. With the flight of commercial activity to big-box retail in the ’burbs and blocks of urban clearance that sat for decades along University Avenue, it was easy to see why they were fearful.

Gathering civic gumption and pride, Madison made a series of investments to revitalize Downtown and perhaps succeeded beyond its dreams. David Mollenhoff was an early leader of the Central Madison Committee preaching re-investment. Jonathan Barry and Bill Dyke planted a seed for a farmers’ market. Paul Soglin led the early charge with the State Street Mall and Concourse. Pleasant Rowland had an idea for summer concerts on the Square and persuaded the governor it would be a good use of civic space.

Then the city built the Madison Civic Center as a place for the arts, now morphed into Overture thanks to the generous gift of Jerry Frautschi. George Nelson led the citizens’ effort for the Monona Terrace Convention and Community Center reviving the dreams of Frank Lloyd Wright. The ‘Nolen in the 90s’ conference series inspired by Marc Eisen brought back the vision of the “city beautiful,” articulated by John Nolen, the father of urban planning, in 1911. Sue Bauman told the Plan Commission to bring new urbanism to Madison’s core. Mayor Dave has brought biking to the fore. Though this leadership was essential, it was citizens buying into ideas and making them part of the civic fabric that led to their the successes.

But was all the effort worth it? Of course others can tell it was. When another magazine rating comes out and places Madison atop some category of “wonderfulness” we yawn now and assume it is our due. Most places would die for those ratings.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Let facts be submitted to a candid world.” The Square booms. The Dane County Farmers’ Market attracts a half a million buyers from a wide region. It supports the local foodie economy and invigorates downtown restaurants. Art Fair on the Square, with an attendance of 200,000, results in more than $30 million in arts spending and $24 million in tourism dollars. Commercial assessed values downtown doubled from the mid 1990s to the middle of the current decade adding $700 million to the tax base.

Monona Terrace welcomes 200,000 visitors every year and contributes $50 million annually in economic benefits to the city, county and state. In the last seven years, annual downtown room tax revenue—earmarked for tourism promotion—increased from $1.9 million to $2.9 million. And the lake next to Monona Terrace thrives with the Ironman swim-bike-run event and an economic impact of $2.2 million.

Overture CenterIn 2008, Overture Center drew over half a million people for all its programs. In its first five years Overture served 235,000 schoolchildren and cleared 1.8 million in attendance. Every year the facility draws more than 150,000 people for its community programming and another 130,000 for ticketed events. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art brings in another 150,000 visitors a year.

In addition to the arts, arts education is a major downtown investor. Madison College has a master plan for facility investments that will enhance its presence downtown, where the college has been located for more than a century. Current visions for renovated facilities call for the downtown campus to become the location for the college’s Applied Arts program. Instruction will include animation, graphic design, tactile arts, photography, social media, music and a major gallery space. A key part of the campus will be hospitality programs, including culinary arts and hotel and event management. The college also may seek a development partner to renovate and expand the campus. A conceptual sketch shows the preservation of the old Central High arch with new development surrounding.

So downtown is worth it because our citizens have made it so. Civic spaces and civic life need continual nourishing to make them work so join in. It’s your downtown.

This is the last in a series of seven installments, all of which are available at

Dick Wagner, a former member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, currently serves on the Board of Directors for Downtown Madison, Inc.

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