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Sunday, February 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist and Breezy
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Mayor Dave is leading the wrong way on the library and the Edgewater
A loss of competence at City Hall
on (10) Comments
Marc Eisen
Marc Eisen

I'll say this for him: Mayor Dave Cieslewicz took the 11th-hour collapse of the Fiore Co.'s library plan in stride. Without missing a beat, he announced that the city will move quickly to Plan B - renovating the existing library at its Mifflin Street site.

But as unflappable as the mayor is, he can't really hide the disarray at City Hall. Too many big and potentially signature deals have collapsed at the city's feet during his stewardship, notably Union Corners and Avenue 800, both on East Washington Avenue.

Now Fiore, after months of work and six figures' worth of predevelopment costs, has backed out of its $37 million plan to build the new library at its 222 W. Washington Ave. property, while redeveloping the old library site into an impressive 380,000-square-foot mixed-use project with parking.

"Whoa, Nelly!" as Ed Garvey would say.

Mayor Dave needs to take a deep breath and consider the big picture before rushing off to remodel the existing library as a stand-alone project. This is not an insignificant salt shed or snowplow garage.

A public investment of this size needs to leverage private dollars, as was proposed with Fiore. That catalytic strategy has been a key to the downtown revival over the past three decades. Big public projects like the State Street Mall, the Capitol Concourse, the Civic Center and the Monona Terrace Convention Center were all envisioned as setting the stage for new privately financed retail, office, condo, hotel and restaurant development.

It worked!

How unsettling, then, that the mayor and other city leaders seem ready to junk that strategy. It suggests a certain competence to do development has been lost at City Hall.

Surprisingly, that same shortsightedness appears true for Madison's civic and business leaders. How else to explain their lemming-like support of the extravagant Edgewater Hotel subsidy?

It's a true head-scratcher that so many political and civic leaders have embraced the $93 million Edgewater expansion, with its heaping $16 million public subsidy. Sure, it will fund a new public plaza overlooking Lake Mendota, but that plaza has never been thought important enough to be part of any comprehensive downtown plan.

Even more curious, the city normally squeezes its development dollars until the dead presidents yelp. The busted projects and lost development that result, in part, from this excruciatingly slow process are truly jaw-dropping.

This includes not just the Gary Gorman and McGrath family projects on East Wash, but the catastrophic Epic Systems fumble that put the software giant in Verona and the less publicized loss of the UW Medical Foundation headquarters to Middleton when the city foolishly failed to provide sufficient parking for the foundation's first-choice site at 222 W. Washington. (Yes, Fiore is twice stung at this property.)

Now, the city is about to execute a 180-degree policy turnaround worthy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - from being excessively cautious on subsidizing developers to being overly generous. This is baffling.

I've written earlier on how the Edgewater project, because of its isolated position in a historic residential neighborhood, does little to reinforce the downtown's economic engines on State Street, the Capitol Square and at Monona Terrace (Opinion column, 9/24/09).

That doesn't mean the city shouldn't encourage the Edgewater renovation with some financial grease. But $16 million in a tax increment financing subsidy? That's crazy. Madison needs jobs, it needs to build tax base. The Edgewater project fares badly on both counts.

Begin with the fact that the project will have a far smaller impact on the tax base than people think. That $93 million expansion will translate to only $45 million on the tax rolls, according to veteran city assessor Mike Kurth. Low occupancy rates and diminished revenue, he notes, have driven down hotel values and triggered a half-dozen or so successful hotel assessment appeals in 2009.

And, as The Capital Times first reported, most of the new tax increment the city will recoup will actually be siphoned off the totally unrelated University Square development.

The jobs impact of the Edgewater expansion may be even less impressive. Bluntly put, these will be crappy low-wage, non-benefit jobs. Federal data for 2008 shows that Wisconsin workers in the "accommodations and food services" industry earn, on average, $16,550 a year.

Whoa, Nelly! Does anyone seriously believe we can build a downtown economy around those jobs? That these workers will buy high-end condos, dine at fancy restaurants and shop at boutique stores? And the construction jobs created by the project will be transitory. Only a fool would put them at the heart of a smart economic strategy for the city.

The long and short of it is that Madison, particularly the central city, needs good, permanent, family-supporting jobs. The Edgewater expansion, whatever its merits, won't provide them.

As with the library project, you're left to wonder: Will the city come to its senses?

Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

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