Madison officials have enthusiastically embraced the ideas of Fred Kent, the founder of Project for Public Spaces. Kent was in town this week to promote "placemaking" in a series of workshops sponsored by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
Kent has dedicated his career to promoting public spaces that foster community. He led public sessions on the topic on Monday and Tuesday and met with members of the Common Council to talk about how they can improve their neighborhoods.
But Kent is not a big fan of convention centers, and Madison is gearing up to invest several million dollars in its own Monona Terrace. The city is contemplating a large hotel to complement the convention center as part of the Judge Doyle Square project, which is expected to take $25 to $50 million in city investment.
The problem with convention centers in general, Kent told Isthmus during a break in Monday's seminar at Monona Terrace, is that they don't involve the community.
"It's not part of the city. It has nothing to do with the city. It's just there, it's a building that brings in some conventions," says Kent, whose organization is based in New York. "I have no idea what goes on in the New York City convention center. It's never anything I would even look at to think, 'Well, maybe I should go there.'"
Still, Kent did praise Monona Terrace, saying it goes against the cookie-cutter mold of convention centers, which tend to be ugly, disconnected big-box buildings. Monona Terrace works well with the lake, he says, and he praises its relaxed feel. He likes the fact that he was able to take his "crumbly" pastry and tea into the exhibition area without getting scolded by staff.
Kent offers no advice on whether a massive investment in the convention center is worthwhile. However, he says the city would do well to emphasize community and regional events at Monona Terrace and events that draw in city residents.
"There aren't any that I know of that work as community centers. That's the problem," Kent says. "The idea that a convention center could be a community center, that's a pretty interesting idea."