We Need to Invest in Madison

Business development, new urban communities and green energy are key to the city's future

Right about now I’d be more than happy to admit that I didn't pay close enough attention during my economics class in college. Except I didn’t take an economics class in college. So my lack of knowledge of what’s really happening in the global economy is well founded. Despite my daily reading of the business pages in major American newspapers and respected websites, I can’t seem to escape the feeling that I really don’t have a clue.

That doesn’t stop me from worrying, however, and what worries me the most right now is that we as a country have lost our willingness to invest in ourselves. To be sure this is all clouded by the ugliest politics I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yes, the Civil Rights struggle was bad. So were the Cold War and the Vietnam War. But I’ve never seen so many elected officials so indifferent to the good of the country or the state, so indifferent to the citizens. And it seems to me that indifference is showing up in the painfully slow recovery from a recession, which in fact we may be slipping back in to. And the majority of our leaders simply don’t care.

Part of my impatience may be age. I turned sixty in between last month’s column and the one you’re reading, and the “long term” isn’t what it once was. But even the optimism of youth has to be tempered these days by unemployment rates, housing prices and the cost of gas. Every fiscal instinct I have says we should be investing in business development, new urban communities and green energy. Which brings me to the topic closest to my heart—Madison.

So many people are working so hard to continue to build and grow our city in healthy and sustainable, creative and profitable ways. Thrive has embarked on a new economic development strategy that holds the greatest promise I’ve seen since the Collaboration Council was created five or six years ago. The Capitol East District development project is beginning to generate excitement and proposals that justify the work that’s gone into creating the vision for this vitally important urban corridor. There was a week in August when Monona Terrace hosted some three thousand Trek Bicycle dealers from around the country, a powerful reminder of what Madison’s status as a biking community means to the region’s economy.

But—here’s the rub—all of this needs investment. These efforts need both private and public sector support, smart people working collaboratively with an eye on efficiency and responsible use of resources. And it has to be done independently of state and federal governments because right now both are simply black holes where statesmanship, integrity and the common good go to die. I guess what I’m really hoping for is that we as citizens can support and encourage this work. That we can ignore the dysfunctional politics, not get discouraged and keep our eyes on the prizes of jobs, tax revenues, regional economic development, global competitiveness and high quality of life for all citizens in our community. We can’t wait for more enlightened leadership. We’re in a bad cycle right now and it’ll take time to change it. We have to act on our own.

Buy a ticket to Community GroundWorks’ 10th Anniversary Party on September 10th and support this great organization’s work in urban agriculture. Come to the Wisconsin Science Festival September 22–25 at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and get excited about cutting-edge research on the wonders of science and art. And tell the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce members you know, your alder, your mayor, your neighbors and friends that you support their work to make this city and this region an example of courage and wisdom and good citizenship.

You don’t need an economics class for that. And neither do I, thank goodness.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

Find more For the Record columns here.

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