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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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Milwaukee Public Market struggled, then flourished

Milwaukee's public market experience provides Madison with a road map of how to make a public market work and what pitfalls to avoid, but it also highlights a glaring deficiency in our city's economic development toolbox.

Ron San Felippo has been around the block. In fact, he's been around a lot of blocks, with stints in state government, local government and the private sector. Today, he's the chair of the board for Milwaukee's Business Improvement District Number Two. The BID owns and runs the Milwaukee Public Market. We'll get back to why that's important in a moment.

The Milwaukee Public Market opened in fall 2005, but after only 18 months in operation it was near to going belly up. San Felippo says it was trying to be "an indoor green market" and hadn't yet found "the right mix of what people actually wanted to buy."

So in 2007 the BID, which already owned the building, took over the market's operations and got to work getting the right group of vendors in place, a factor that, along with location, public market consultant Aaron Pohl-Zaretsky says is crucial. The most important thing, San Felippo says, is that customers wanted more local value-added and prepared foods along with the green grocer products.

Today the market is running in the black with 18 vendors and eight restaurants. It's relatively small - only 14,000 square feet of public space in a 28,000-square-foot building (the rest is for behind-the-scenes operations), compared to the proposed 61,000-square-foot facility for Madison. This does raise the question of whether the Madison plan goes too big.

San Felippo says the Milwaukee market is meeting the two criteria that the BID set out. It's responsible for employing 500 people and drawing almost a million visitors a year to the Historic Third Ward, just south of downtown. And these visitors find their ways into other stores and restaurants in the district.

San Felippo says there was some initial nervousness from businesses outside of the market about competition, but that has disappeared as they've seen the collateral benefits of being nearby. He also says that the BID is careful to charge market-rate rents so as not to provide public market businesses with an unfair advantage.

But what strikes me as key - and it's a key that is lacking in Madison - is the strength of the BID. It built and operates two parking structures, constructed a river walk and two pocket parks, and owns and operates the public market.

Compare that to Madison's downtown BID, which limits itself to worthwhile, but small-scale, projects like the downtown ambassador program and hanging summer flower baskets on State Street and tree lights at Christmas time. The potential market and many other downtown projects would benefit from a stronger, more aggressive BID that had the vision to tax itself for its own long-term benefit. And BIDs could be expanded to other places like Monroe and Atwood streets. Milwaukee has more than 30 business improvement districts.

That aside, what is San Felippo's advice for Madison? It comes from decades as a civic leader and it applies to virtually any civic project. "If you have common sense and a sense of humor," he says, "you'll do fine."

Go see for yourself. The Milwaukee Public Market is located at 400 N. Water St., right off I-94. It's open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

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