Janet Heister, a member of the Southdale-Rimrock Neighborhood Association, recently urged Dane County's Community Block Grant Commission against giving the Alexander Co. a subsidy to convert some apartments to condos. (The CDBG approved $200,000 of the $400,000 request, which must still pass the County Board.) She raised a number of concerns, including this:
"The Alexander Co. has already received plenty of public funds by promising economic benefit to our neighborhood," she stated, noting that in 2001 the company got in on a $370,000 grant from the federal government through Dane County to build a job-training center staffed by MATC in the town of Madison. "That was six years ago. Where is MATC? Where is our job training center? Where is the $370,000?"
A press release from the office of Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in October 2001 heralded the grant, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The $370,000, it said, "will be used to construct, equip and furnish a 2,700-square-foot employment training center" as part of the Alexander Company's Novation campus, a $120 million project now taking shape at Rimrock Road and the Beltline.
Falk's office appears clueless as to what happened. "The staff person who worked on this is no longer with the county," explains Falk aide Elizabeth Kluesner, who was unable to find any information on why the training center was not built.
Steve Steinhoff, who formerly oversaw the project as a community development coordinator with the county's planning office, says the $370,000 grant, plus at least some of a $1.2 million loan, were provided to the Alexander Co. several years ago.
But by this time, MATC had decided to invest its resources into job-skill training at the nearby Villager Mall. Steinhoff says Dane County and the Alexander Co. went back to HUD with a plan to preserve the grant's "broader purpose" of job creation.
The money was used instead to underwrite the cost of attracting business tenants - and the jobs they brought - to the Novation campus. Steinhoff, no longer with the county, says some funding was earmarked for a smaller job-training room, although "I don't think it's really been used for that purpose."
Alexander Co. spokesman Dan Peterson says the money enabled the campus to attract tenants like Shopbop, a clothing company, creating a "couple hundred" jobs. It also helped build a conference center available to tenants and community groups.
Joe Mathers, a neighborhood resident, sees it as something of a bait-and-switch: "You get in the front door saying you're going to do one thing and later on you do something else." Now that the Alexander Co. is back asking for more public money, "You want to see assurances" it will do what it says.
But Jym Britton, a former neighborhood association member, thinks the Alexander Co.'s critics are being disingenuous in how they're framing the issue. He thinks it set out to do "something good," but the withdrawal of MATC forced a change in plans. Association members, he adds, "know where all that money went and were okay with it."
Peterson says Alexander Co. is still "actively pursuing a way to bring;some job-training;capacity to the campus," somewhere down the line: "We are really trying to create jobs. We're trying to do a lot of good for this community."
Hybrid neighborhoods - what a concept!
John Gann is pushing an alternative to hybrid cars, as well as the need to diet to lose weight. His solution: hybrid neighborhoods.
A Madison-based urban development consultant - his company, Gann Associates, has helped cities throughout the Midwest market their attributes - Gann has just published a slim volume championing this idea. Hybrid Neighborhoods ($9.95 plus postage, call 255-5591) is meant for a national audience but mentions Madison Metro and quotes Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. It argues that the best way to reduce gas mileage and improve health is for people to live in mainly older urban neighborhoods where they can walk to meet most of their needs.
"When you have very high fuel prices and concern for global warming, the advantages of urban living are even greater," says Gann, whose book calculates the cost savings and health benefits of a walkable environment.
This is hardly a new idea in Madison, which Gann sees as somewhat anomalous in this regard. Nationally, most central cities are losing jobs and population: "Overall, our cities are not selling well." In many places, hybrid neighborhoods are among the least expensive.
In Madison, the neighborhoods on and near the isthmus - First Settlement (where Gann lives), Willy Street, Monroe Street, Vilas - are hugely popular, and pricey.
"Madison has a greater abundance of hybrid neighborhoods that will appeal to middle-class people than other cities," he says. Here, people may flee the city for the suburbs to get more affordable homes. Of course, "You have to figure in what they're paying at $3 a gallon to support that lifestyle."
Bulldog sicced on CDA
The office of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, responding to articles in Isthmus ("CDA Outsources Union Jobs," 9/21/07 and "The CDA's No-Bid Contracts, 10/5/07), has tapped chief of staff Janet Piraino to investigate.
"There have been some ongoing issues with CDA and housing," says spokesman George Twigg. "Janet, our bulldog, will look into it."
The Isthmus articles detailed how the semi-autonomous CDA has been replacing union jobs with outside firms, some picked without competitive bids, in apparent violation of the agency's own rules. They also reported that the CDA has considered itself exempt from the city's living-wage ordinance. But last week the CDA board reached a "consensus" to adopt a resolution to voluntarily comply, says CDA chair Stu Levitan.
Piraino says she will be looking at several issues, including, "What are the CDA's procurement policies and are they following them?" and "Is contracting out cheaper than having city employees and, if so, why is it cheaper?"
Not playing along
Jim Hickey, principal of McFarland High School, got a real kick out of a recent missive from Dawn Marie Sass, Wisconsin's treasurer. Sent to principals throughout the state, the letter touted an enclosed DVD game - "Financial Football" - produced by VISA and promoted by the NFL. Players advance the ball and score points by correctly answering money-related questions.
"Dawn - You have to be kidding me!" Hickey scrawled on the letter, before sending it back. "I suggest you forward this DVD to the state Legislature and the governor. Trust me, our students are more astute."
Long-winded question for Christopher Hitchens
Does it really not occur to you that your disposition toward the people who asked you questions following your talk last Saturday at the Freedom From Religion Foundation conference in Madison - namely, that anyone who disagrees even slightly with your support for the war in Iraq and eagerness to bomb Iran (arguably the waging of hostilities by one group of religious extremists against another) is stupid - represents precisely the sort of heavy-handed dogmatism your audience at this event has come to reject?