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Saturday, November 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Why Madison needs a year-round public market
It's not just about food. It's a place for community
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Credit:Jared Boggess

Every Saturday my wife, Dianne, and I go to the Dane County Farmers' Market.

We go too early, but that's my opinion, and my opinion does not matter on the subject of local produce. Dianne wants to beat the crowds. I want to sleep in. We beat the crowds.

So, I always arrive grumpy and muttering about how expensive everything is and why can't we just go to the grocery store? But I get coffee and a roll from Graze, and I start to feel better. We buy asparagus from Matt and flowers from Julie and fresh pasta from Peter. Somebody is always playing a violin someplace. Every corner brings "tablers" hawking one good cause or another. By the time we leave I've had a great morning.

From April to early November this is part of our weekly routine and a big part of our diet.

And then the weather turns cold and it goes away.

Sure, there's an indoor market with some of the same vendors, but it's not the same. The indoor venues are either cramped (the downtown Madison Senior Center) or cavernous (Monona Terrace Convention Center). We seldom go.

What if you could get that same farmers' market experience but it didn't have to end in November? And what if it weren't just available on Saturdays, but every day of the week?

That's essentially what a public market is. It's a year-round indoor celebration of all things food with a heavy dose of local cultural flavor and quirkiness. The violin players and the good-cause tablers are as important as the tomatoes.

Many major cities and most of our competitors in the race for coolness have built or are planning to build a public market. Toronto, Minneapolis, Seattle, Milwaukee, Vancouver and a host of other smaller cities have markets.

For almost a decade now Madison has been planning for a public market, but efforts have stalled a bit.

That's in part because the market comes with a not insignificant public price tag of several million dollars, according to a 2008 study financed by the city and the Madison Community Foundation. A few million more would have to be raised in private donations, and the market would need a couple of years of shake-out before breaking even in year three of its existence, according to the study.

So, why should millions of your tax dollars go for a market? Why not just go to Whole Foods or Metcalfe's or Willy Street or another co-op?

Because a public market is about the public. It's not just a privately owned space in which to conduct commerce. It's a publicly controlled space in which to conduct community.

Aaron Pohl-Zaretsky helped found the Mifflin Street Co-op when he was in school at UW-Madison in the 1960s. After graduating with an anthropology degree in 1971, he toured Europe and North Africa in a Volkswagen microbus. He lived cheaply, getting most of his food from public markets. Pohl-Zaretsky figures he visited about 300 public markets on his travels.

Six years later he found himself in Seattle running the iconic Pike Place Market and seeing it through a $65 million renovation. He says that $65 million leveraged seven times more private investment. And the federal government called its $6 million in economic development grants the most successfully leveraged public investment it had made through that program.

Since then, Pohl-Zaretsky has worked as a private consultant on about 40 public market projects around the country.

Pohl-Zaretsky sees public markets as more than just places to buy stuff. "They can't be just publicly owned Whole Foods stores," he says.

In a letter last May, Pohl-Zaretsky reintroduced himself to newly elected Mayor Paul Soglin (they knew each other in the 1960s), and explained what he thought a public market should be.

"At Pike Place Market, I became convinced that public markets could be used as self-sustaining engines of community and economic development, as well as beloved community centers, job, tax, and entrepreneurial generators, and opportunity creators for people who are often shut out of the mainstream economy - particularly women, low-income people and people of color," Pohl-Zaretsky wrote.

But he is also an economic realist. In fact, when he does his economic feasibility studies he finds that about one in three proposals just won't make it, and he discourages continuing with the project.

If enough care is taken in the planning, it's very rare for a public market to fail. Pohl-Zaretsky explains: "Of the scores of new public markets that have been developed over the last 30 years, only one has failed [Portland,Maine] and one has struggled [Milwaukee]." He said both experienced difficulties because, unlike most public markets, they were not centrally located.

"When thePortland, Maine,public market relocated on the edge of downtown, it took off," he says.

Of Madison, a community he knows so well, Pohl-Zaretsky says, "If you were to define a city where a public market would be successful, you would be defining Madison."

He says that has to do with the city's demographics, its embrace of all things local and funky and its desire to explore diverse cultures.

It was Pohl-Zaretsky who, along with local economic development consultant Jim Bower and Common Wealth Development, completed the Madison public market study four years ago. That study looked at dozens of potential sites for a market and concluded that the state- and city-owned surface parking lot behind GEF 1 on East Washington Avenue, just two blocks off the Square, was the best location.

But when I saw the report as mayor in 2008, I didn't agree with the conclusion that the Brayton Lot was best. I felt that the two blocks of dead space from the Capitol to the site would be a drag on the market's success because the bunker-like state office building would discourage people from making the walk. I asked them to try again and to look specifically at Union Corners, at the intersection of Milwaukee Street and East Washington Avenue, and the site of the current Government East parking ramp next to the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. on Doty Street.

Pohl-Zaretsky and Bower came back with the conclusion that Union Corners wouldn't work because it was just too far removed from the center of action downtown, but that Government East was at least as good a site as the Brayton Lot, a site first suggested by former Ald. Tim Gruber.

So I put more money into developing a more detailed business and fundraising plan and included north of $10 million in my five-year capital budget for the building.

Things were moving along. Then in April 2011 a funny thing happened. I lost an election and Paul Soglin put the brakes on all things Mayor Dave.

That was his right, and he had won the election in part on a pledge to reduce borrowing costs. Soglin also didn't like the Government East site, and city staff opined that it was too expensive.

Fair enough. He won. I lost. He gets to put his own stamp on the city. But to his credit the mayor sees value in the project.

"I am very supportive of a public market," Soglin wrote in an email to me noting that he has personally visited five of them. But he makes it clear that it "needs to be in an affordable facility. We want to focus on locally grown and produced products and ensure that the vendors can afford the rents. In terms of structure I see the city assisting in acquisition and development costs and a cooperative of the vendors operating the market."

The mayor backed up his words by appointing a city committee (the way everything is done in the city of Madison). The newly created Local Food Committee is charged with looking broadly at local food production and distribution, but implicit goals are finding a new location for a market and moving the project forward.

One member of the committee is Peter Robertson, owner of RP's Pasta and a potential vendor at the market. Robertson says that the market needs to have "a secure business plan and an anchor tenant."

The anchor, he says, could be some kind of basic food-processing facility. In fact, the need for a packinghouse or "central agricultural facility" has been identified by others in the local foods movement for at least a decade. The problem for small local farmers is that they while they can toss produce in a truck and head for a farmers' market easily enough, anything that requires packaging, processing or refrigeration can be expensive.

Tim Metcalfe owns the most successful locally owned, high-end food stores in Madison. Recently, Metcalfe proposed a 60,000-square-foot grocery on East Washington Avenue, not far from the sites being considered for the public market. While the mayor and Common Council went with a different developer on that site, Metcalfe is still interested in a store location in the area. I asked him if he viewed the public market as a threat to his business.

"The [creation of the] Madison Public Market would not change our opinion that the area around the 800 block [of East Washington Avenue] is a food desert," Metcalfe says. He says that 22,000 residents live close to the site, about twice as many as live near his Hilldale store. He adds that the Hilldale store does well despite the competition from nearby stores, including Whole Foods.

Metcalfe is a bit of the exception to the rule nationally. Pohl-Zaretsky says that local grocers are often understandably concerned when a public market is first discussed.

"What ends up happening is the public market gets built and it does steal maybe 15% of their customer base," Pohl-Zaretsky says. "But the customer base that everybody shares quintuples. They're going to get a slightly smaller piece of a much, much bigger pie."

In fact, the 2008 study predicted that a public market in Madison would house 41 permanent vendors, stores and restaurants, create at least 300 new full-time-equivalent jobs and spur even more spin-off benefits to local food producers.

And the market represents economic development in a more cosmic sense. The most basic reason that I went to bat for things like the smoking ban and bikes was that we needed to keep up with the Boulders.

Madison is in competition for smart, inventive entrepreneurs who create jobs, and these kids can live anywhere. There are certain indicators that market a community to people like that. A smoking ban says your community cares about health. Being pro-bike says you care about health and community design. And a public market says you care about health and local entrepreneurs and good food. It all adds up to that elusive idea and overused phrase "quality of life." It adds up to the indefinable coolness that sells your place to the world.

So, for Madison, this should be easy. But for Madison nothing is ever easy.

The public market is far from a sure bet.

Ald. Satya Rhodes Conway, a longtime local foods advocate and a member of the Local Food Committee, says the idea of a public market has "a fair amount of viability," but she doesn't know, at this early stage, if the committee would recommend building one.

She says that the committee first wants to "better define what we mean by a public market."

Committee member Dan Kennelly, who is secretary of the Bay Creek Neighborhood Association, also advocates going slowly.

"The committee's perspective is that we should first spend some time exploring the state of the local food sector in the region and identifying the barriers, constraints and gaps in Madison's food system.Then we can consider if and how the public market could be a solution."

That's a thoughtful approach, but it's important not to forget that we've already had a decade of studies and committee work on this issue. Even by Madison standards that should be enough. Meanwhile, our municipal competitors are planning and building. Let's not get left behind.

A public market is just too perfect for this city of foodies and urban farmers. Once it was built, we would eat it up.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at

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