October 14, 2010 3:35 PM
The other day I had the opportunity to give a talk at the downtown Kiwanis meeting (I still don't know what a Kiwani is, but I know that it's a good service organization made up of dedicated civic leaders, so I was happy to talk with them).
In thinking about what I would say it occurred to me that a lot of civic energy over the last 18 months or so has gone into four high-profile projects and one less-known structure. I thought it might be useful to try to understand why and my conclusion was that they each mean something that goes well beyond the bricks and mortar.
Here's an abbreviated version of that talk.
The Overture Center & Civic Capacity. The Overture Center is a bigger facility than the Madison region would have built for itself. It's a physical reality we can't ignore and a facility we will grow into in the coming decades. The real question is how to fill the gap between what a building of that size demands and what taxpayers in a community our size can be expected to support. We need to build the kind of civic engagement and philanthropic support that wasn't part of the discussion in the wake of Jerry Frautschi's generous gift. The real challenge is to demonstrate that we have the civic capacity to wrestle with a big, complex problem and arrive at a solution that works without shutting the place down. If we can do this, it will pay dividends in civic confidence to tackle other tough issues.
The Central Library & The Improvement of Community Dialogue. There are those who say libraries are on the road to obsolescence. I'm betting on just the opposite. I believe Madison can be on the cusp of redefining what a library can be. It can be a center of civic learning, a place where people from all over the community come together to learn together or to discuss issues of the day in a non-confrontational, fact-based setting. The library can be an institution that injects calm, rational discussion into our daily dialogue, something we need now more than ever.
The Train Station & The Vibe of Relevance. Cities have to grow and move to stay alive. And more than ever, they need to connect to one another, sometimes through the ether, but still through physical connections. High speed rail will get us around the Midwest faster, and it will provide another transportation option, especially for an aging society that may not want to drive as much. But what it really means for Madison to be among the first cities on a new American fast rail network is that it connects us to a vibe that marks us as relevant, a community that wants to catch the wave and keep up. Things like rail, bikability movements, local food and public markets, high speed internet and eclectic music and other arts scenes tell the world that we're a place that welcomes new ideas, change and diversity. It's not just about being cool; it's about surviving in a competitive world marketplace.
The Edgewater As The Business Image Game Changer. The Edgewater Hotel will provide jobs and tax base just when both are needed more than ever. But those are just the conventional reasons to support it. The more fundamental meaning of the Edgewater is that the city approval of it sent a strong and clear message that a big, bold project can move forward in our city. Sure, the long, hard road to get there has spawned a welcome analysis of our processes, but let's not lose sight of the fact that we made this work. Madison should want to be known as a city with high standards where quality development is not just welcomed but encouraged. We're not all the way there yet, but the Edgewater approval was like a stick of dynamite, announcing loudly that things may have changed.
The Police Training Facility As A Commitment To Progressive Policing. This $6 million city investment on the far south east side has gotten little attention because it hasn't been very controversial. But it's a big deal. For the first time in recent history, Madison will have its own police training facility. It means that our unique approach to community policing will be institutionalized for future generations more than we could have hoped before. Moreover, the facility has some excess capacity that we will offer for other departments, spreading Madison's progressive and effective approach to the broader region.
I could add other buildings to the list. The Institutes for Discovery, for example, but that is a UW project with little direct city involvement beyond coordination of building permits.
These five buildings are important for what they are, for the jobs, the commerce, the value and the programs that will happen under their roofs. But they are even more important for what they will say about us, about who we were on the day they opened, for the decades that they will stand.