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Abandoning the Madison Public Market is for cowards

A $5.2 million budget gap is not a good enough reason to scuttle this project.
An illustration shows an overhead view of an imagined Madison Public Market with a large trench in front of it. The trench is partially filled with money, and on the other side of it stands a crowd of people.
Illustration by Andrew Mulhearn.

A $5.2 million budget gap is not a good enough reason to scuttle this project.

I remember going to a Madison Public Market preview event in 2019. The Fleet Services Building at the corner of East Johnson and First Street, the market’s planned site, teemed with a sense of possibility as the crowd sampled the wares of potential market vendors—the mighty comfort food of Melly Mell’s, personal care products from Madre Yerba, elaborately carved melons from Artesan Fruit. 

As the market developed potential vendors through a program called MarketReady, something exciting was coming into focus. Madison could have not just a capable imitation of public markets in other cities, but could truly put its own distinctive stamp on the idea. It would bring together all kinds of offerings that deserve a good location and a chance to shine. It would enliven an intersection that most of us associate with waiting in traffic at a freight-train crossing. There’d be all kinds of nice stuff to buy, but also a new public space where people could hang out with little to no pressure to make a purchase. Years of talking and studying and consulting and scrounging together political will seemed about to finally pay off.

Now, as the city buckles down to finalize its 2023 budget, a $5.2 million funding shortfall threatens the entire Madison Public Market project. A federal grant fell through, construction costs are up significantly, and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s proposed 2023 capital budget does not put up funding to close the gap. An ominous WKOW headline in September declared the market “all but scrapped.” The overall discourse around the public market is taking on an air of lukewarm abandonment. 

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Board members at the Madison Public Market Foundation, which contracts with the city to manage the project, are hoping to convince Alders to break the jam through a last-minute budget amendment. The Common Council plans to finalize the 2023 budget in mid-November, so there isn’t much time to propose such an amendment and gather enough votes for it to pass. Outgoing District 12 Alder Syed Abbas (the market would be in that district) has vocally supported the project during his time on the Council, and has continued to advocate for it. His fellow Alders on the city’s Finance Committee have declined to do much about it one way or another, while unhelpfully suggesting that the market seek other funding sources. The foundation put out a video last month in which three vendors—Carmell Jackson of Melly Mell’s, Josey Chu of Madame Chu Delicacies (which focuses on Southeast Asian condiments), and Luis Dompablo of the Caracas Empanadas cart—speak powerfully about the value of the public market. It breaks my heart a bit to see them talk about this not just from a business angle, but out of a community spirit that goes well beyond the usual platitudes.

Well, OK, a big project like this is expensive. Let’s put aside emotional appeals about how craven and soulless it would be to let down a business as awesome as Melly Mell’s, and look at it from a practical perspective.

There’s a point where delays themselves become costly, and potentially fatal. Right now the project depends on making multiple sources of funding click together. Grants and donation commitments often have timelines attached to the money. People and organizations who make donations and grants tend to want to know, quite reasonably, when and how the money will be used, and they want to be confident that other funders will come through. All the pieces depend on all the other pieces. The MPM Foundation isn’t exaggerating when it portrays this city budget cycle as a do-or-die moment for the project. 

When push comes to shove in these narratives about public spending, cutting budgets and scuttling projects equals a “hard choice” that shows true leadership, while just spending the damn money to finally get something done shows profligacy and a lack of discipline. We Americans have gone past an austerity mentality to a full-blown fetish for getting as little as possible for our tax money and just generally having our sense of possibilities squashed.

The market project has never been entirely city-funded, and has always been structured as a public-private effort—in addition to securing city, state, and federal funding, the Madison Public Market Foundation has raised about $3 million in funding from local foundations and businesses. 

“It’s been hard for us to raise money, because the business community and the donor community kind of feels this is a city project and if the city wants to do it, it would get done already,” Public Market Foundation board member James Shulkin told me this week. “And we’ve never really had that acknowledgement from the city that this is absolutely going to happen and a donation now would be worthwhile.” 

This does not indicate a lack of enthusiasm from the business community, by the way. Quite the opposite. About 230 businesses have formally expressed interest in working with the market, and a host of business, non-profit, and civic leaders have voiced their support over the years.

Madison has been building up to a public market since at least 2004, when a city-commissioned study concluded that “Madison can support a 25,000 square foot public market” that would include “space for approximately 22 permanent vendors.” In typical Madison fashion, the suspense is killing us, and it all seems indicative of the choice we have between growing up into an appealing, cosmopolitan city, or just letting our opportunities pass us by, while life here becomes more expensive and less fun.

At this point, it’s more than sunk-cost thinking to argue that the city should just absorb the rising capital costs of the Public Market (governments are better equipped than most entities to absorb those costs, which is why we rely on them to provide all sorts of infrastructure) and ensure that we finally get some results from the millions of dollars in funding commitments and staff time the city has already invested. Madisonians are generally great about supporting local small businesses, especially when it comes to food. No one doubts that people would go to the Madison Public Market and spend a lot of money. 

Finding an extra $5.2 million to keep this from collapsing might not be easy, exactly. It’s also not so much to ask in the context of a $368.4 million capital budget proposal, and not so much to ask for a project with such clear benefits. Compare this to the kinds of discussions we have around funding for the Madison Police Department, which tries to pretend that an operating budget cut of less than $1 million would be impossible to absorb. The Madison Public Market Foundation argues that the market would have an annual economic impact of $20 million—which is hardly a guarantee, but it does suggest that the project would turn out to be more than financially worthwhile in the long run, even after steep construction expenses.

Even one of the public market’s most prominent boosters is ready to surrender in the face of the current funding obstacle. Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote an Isthmus cover story in 2012 that made an impassioned case for it: “It’s a publicly controlled space in which to conduct community.” 

A decade later, as his Citizen Dave column journeys further and further into a solipsistic centrism that’s too practical for things like ideological principles or well-defined policy commitments, he now writes that “The public market is certainly worthy but it isn’t a basic need.” We also need to cut the project because “this is a time of hard choices,” he helpfully notes. 

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You don’t have to be a former mayor to know that a local government sticking to “basic needs” (a term that lends itself to almost infinite rhetorical narrowing) probably doesn’t have much of a vision at all. Cities go beyond basic needs all the time in order to attract residents and businesses, make long-term adjustments, and adapt to evolving ideas about what exactly people need. 

“A lot of cities don’t have public markets but no city goes without schools, jails, public transit facilities, or some accommodation for homeless people,” Cieslewicz notes. Reasonable enough on the surface, this statement lacks a sense of proportion. 

The Dane County Jail project is bloating its way toward a $200 million price tag. As mayor, Cieslewicz went to bat for a $16 million subsidy to support the redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel—and this was in 2009, also an era for hard decisions. And yet, when it comes to the public market, we must simply declare our pockets and patience exhausted over a shortfall of $5.2 million. This is just absurd.

Other arguments for throwing in the towel are even less impressive. WKOW quoted District 19 Alder and Common Council President Keith Furman as saying: “I don’t think this is a great location, I don’t think this is a great use of public money and I think it’s time to say that this is a mistake and we need to move on.”

Really? It seems that this location can be every bit as good as the city is willing to make it. It’s at a busy intersection. It’s right on a bike path. It backs up to Burr Jones Park and the paths along the Yahara River. Tenney Park is just a short walk away. The site is right by a cluster of apartment and condo complexes (Lakewood Gardens, Sherman Terrace, Yahara Landing, etc.) whose residents would probably appreciate having more food and retail options within walking distance, and there’s almost certainly more density on the way in that area. In the other direction, there’s the Emerson East neighborhood, and the rapid new development that for better or worse is filling up East Wash. Creating more bustling public space in this East Side-going-on-North Side area makes a whole lot of sense for a whole lot of people.

There are some good arguments against this location for the Public Market. Years ago, the city also considered locating it on the South Side, which would have been a good way to spread the investment around and emphasize all the great things that part of town has to offer. Currently, the city uses the Fleet Building as a temporary shelter for homeless men, and making that permanent would have been one way to resolve the city’s inexcusably delayed search for a new shelter.

At this point, though, we are years into a whole process organized around the East Side location. That means people have devoted countless hours of work, planning, and fundraising, staking their businesses and livelihoods on this plan at this site. The city already owns the property, which doesn’t make rising construction costs any cheaper, but does spare us the work and expense of acquiring another site. We’re well past the point of needing to stay committed. 

Vendors, by the way, stayed committed even after the pandemic pushed back the market’s opening date and made it even harder to keep their businesses afloat. If you’re an elected official who wants to back out on them now, all I can say is: How dare you?

This is particularly a slap in the face to the vendors who’ve been getting ready for the public market since 2017 through the MarketReady program, which emphasized equity and POC-owned businesses. As the list of confirmed and potential vendors shaped up, it seemed to offer a good complement to Madison’s already widely varied food offerings without being redundant, giving some restaurants a chance to try a different angle, giving food cart operators a shot at a more fixed location, also diversifying into areas like body care products. Elaborately carved fruit! Andean crafts! A children’s bookstore! There are people behind all these projects, investing their blood sweat and tears. Are we really going to screw them over now?

There is a lively vision at work here. It offers something in between the seasonal cycle of farmers’ markets and a chance to at least partially mitigate the pressures of rising commercial rents. This isn’t just about losing a cool place to hang out and eat. It’s about honoring our commitments, following through, showing a bit of political spine, and getting some things done instead of just studying them into oblivion. It’s showing that we’re a city that can actually have nice things that we choose, not just nice things that gentrifiers and developers shove down our throats. Saving the Madison Public Market is about as far from a mistake as we could get.

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