Joe Sensenbrenner agrees the plan to expand the Edgewater Hotel is "out of character with the neighborhood," where he happens to live. But the former Madison mayor doesn't know enough to judge the costs of not proceeding with the current plan. Still, the controversy reminds him of one that played out more than 20 years ago.
Sensenbrenner, Madison's mayor from 1983 to 1989, recalls the overtures made by John Q. Hammons, a prominent developer of Holiday Inns, in 1986.
"He came to my office pretty much unannounced, said he wanted to talk about building a convention center." This happened amid intense debate over a downtown convention center, which continued through the end of the decade.
Hammons - whom Sensenbrenner remembers then had 57 Holiday Inns explained that he did all of his own market research. This consisted, relates the former mayor, of "coming into town and talking primarily with busboys and bellhops" at existing hotels. Specifically, Hammons wanted to know how much people tipped and what kind of bags they carried.
On the basis of his research, Hammons told Sensenbrenner, "Son, this city has 'per diem' written all over it" - meaning that folks who attend conventions here are not big spenders. Hence, he said, "You're never going to get the size and kind of facility that I read about you wanting" in downtown Madison. But Hammons was sure he could build a successful hotel and convention center on Madison's west side, perhaps near the current University Research Park or Old Sauk Trails Development.
Sensenbrenner thanked Hammons for his interest but explained that he thought it "critical" that the center be built downtown. In short, "I said no." Hammons was polite but taken aback, saying no city had rebuffed his advances before.
Faced with delays in getting the approvals he needed from Madison, Hammons negotiated a deal to build his Holiday Inn in Middleton, a few yards from Madison city limits. (To sweeten the deal, the Middleton city council informally agreed to waive the room tax for up to 10 years; it ended up imposing one after six.)
The blowback was considerable. Critics blasted Sensenbrenner for spurning a major opportunity. A March 1989 analysis piece in The Capital Times, days before the electoral face-off between Sensenbrenner and challenger Paul Soglin, suggested Sensenbrenner's "most notable loss as the top city manager was in letting the money, energy and creativity of Holiday Inn developer John Hammons slip into Middleton…."
Soglin won the election. Hammons, still kicking at 90, went on to build many more hotels; his Wikipedia entry credits him with having developed "nearly 200."
But Sensenbrenner, looking back, thinks his judgment was vindicated by the eventual construction, under Soglin, of the successful Monona Terrace facility. He doubts this would have happened had the Holiday Inn (now a Marriott) been built in Madison, as this would have sapped too much of the potential market.
Soglin agrees Monona Terrace would have been more "difficult to accomplish" had another convention facility of a certain size been built, but he's not sure where the tipping point might be.
"I have a hard time making a judgment on that," he says, noting that it is generally difficult to assess roads not taken. "Do we say the failure to build a facility in the 1930s [when it was first proposed] is a good thing because it would be old by now?"
Some opponents of the Edgewater expansion have argued that the city should let this proposal-9 die in the hope that better plans will come. Sensenbrenner doesn't make that claim, saying the moral of his story is more subtle: "These things come up from time to time and people are entitled to take a longer view and see what's in the best interest of the city and their neighborhood."