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Challenging the “Downtown Recovery Program” is about challenging Madison’s status quo

The Common Council needs to consider the inequity of dedicating more funding to State Street during a health crisis and civil-rights movement.

The Common Council needs to consider the inequity of dedicating more funding to State Street during a health crisis and civil-rights movement.

Illustration by Maggie Denman.

So much happened at the July 21 meeting of the Madison Common Council, when Alders voted down proposals to provide $250,000 in assistance to local businesses. And so much more has happened since. The bottom line is that our voices of opposition were heard, and an effort to funnel public tax dollars into repairs for private property failed. 

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In the process, we learned much about city bureaucracy and who, besides elected officials, pulls the strings. What started as opposition to the mishandling of public funds during a national financial crisis became a fight against the status quo in Madison and the entitlement it engenders. 

The idea for the Downtown Recovery Program was introduced back in June. It was pitched as a way to financially support State Street business owners whose buildings sustained damage during civil rights protests and riots. It was discussed around the same time that the city curfew was discussed. Back then, it was stated that the program would allot $500,000 to the recovery fund. 

With very little notice to the public, the city’s Economic Development Committee put the recovery fund on its July 15 agenda to decide whether to recommend the proposal to the city’s Finance Committee, the next step on the way to a full Council vote. There were three main points of criticism: (1) the program funded private property with public tax dollars, (2) the program was inequitable because it continued to invest in a predominantly white neighborhood, and (3) the program was inequitable because money for the program was being taken out of funds earmarked for other Madison neighborhood projects. The Economic Development Committee meeting was canceled at the last meeting due to lack of quorum.

Community members and activists erroneously thought that this resolution would have to go through the Economic Development Committee again before seeing the Finance Committee, and did not expect to have to fight against this until August, at the next scheduled EDC meeting. Then, again at the last minute, those of us who registered for public comment on this resolution received an email on Monday, July 20 at 9:45 am stating the following:

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The Finance Committee meeting was that same day at 4:30 p.m. As we scrambled to participate in this meeting—our right and responsibility—it was also revealed that the resolution had been changed. Now, it proposed two programs: the Downtown Recovery Program and the Downtown Equity Program. Each would receive $250,000. Presumably because of its last-minute addition, there was no new information available about the Downtown Equity Program for community members to read—not even a mention of what the program would do. 

Despite the short notice, community members like myself managed to provide more critical perspectives on the proposals. For example, the resolutions still would have funneled public taxes into private property. The addition of the Downtown Equity Program sounded good in name, but without much substantial information on it, community members could not make informed decisions about it. Plus, the inclusion of the Downtown Equity Program seemed like a rushed attempt to pass the Downtown Recovery Program by making the funds transfer appear more equitable. And even if the Downtown Equity Program aims to support business owners of color—and particularly Black business owners, who are not represented at all on State Street—it seems like a bad idea to encourage anyone to start a business during a pandemic. 

Additionally, the funds for both programs still would have come directly from other neighborhood programs and projects: LED lighting upgrades for Madison Public Libraries; an equity business initiative; intersection safety projects; fire station renovation projects in the North and South; construction of the Reindahl Library in the Northeast; expansion of Hill Creek Park in the West; a sustainability project for the electrification of Metro Transit’s fleet of busses, among others. And, most importantly, it felt unjust that city officials would galvanize so quickly around issues of property damage to “find” money in the budget to fix broken windows before addressing broken policing and broken trust.

During the Finance Committee meeting, representatives from the Central Business Improvement District and Downtown Madison Inc. made tone-deaf comments and misleading claims about diversity on State Street. They spoke of the suffering these small business owners faced due to the civil unrest, but did not acknowledge the suffering that the BIPOC community and their allies were protesting in the first place. They argued that 70 percent of the businesses are locally owned and 62 percent are owned by women or people of color—as if these statistics are enough to demonstrate diversity, equity, and inclusion. Lumping together women and people of color is a clever way, if microaggressive, of hiding a potential lack of racial diversity. Questions I still had after hearing this statistic thrown around were: How many of those women owners are white women? How many of those POC owners are women, and how many are Black Americans specifically? The point of these questions is not to frame any group as more or less deserving, but to get a clear picture of who would be supported with this money when there is little funding to go around during a pandemic-induced financial crisis. 

Advocates for the Downtown Recovery Program collected stories from POC owners, many of whom are immigrants, to tug at heartstrings and persuade the Common Council to cover the cost of building damage. During the Finance Committee meeting, Tiffany Kenney, the Executive Director of Madison’s Central Business Improve District, listed off business owners to demonstrate the diversity of State Street. At one point, she identified a white woman store owner who said she was raised by a Black woman, implying that being adjacent to a Black woman makes your business racially diverse. When it was later revealed that there is not one single Black-owned business on State Street, that same representative admitted that until now, there has been no “focused effort” to encourage or support Black-owned businesses on State Street. That absence was then leveraged to justify the development of the Downtown Equity Program, which was tied to the Downtown Recovery Program. Despite protestations and skepticism from community members and a few Alders, the resolutions passed to be heard at the Common Council meeting.

At the July 21 Common Council meeting, representatives from the Central Business Improvement District and Downtown Madison Inc. again tried to claim that State Street and the Capitol Square areas are racially diverse. They tried to claim that investing in these areas was beneficial for all of Madison, because it’s the “city center” and the “heart of the city.” They argued that downtown draws the most revenue and tourism because “people come to Madison for the quality of life that we have downtown.” They did not address the fact that this logic is circular. Of course the downtown area has the most tourism—the community and Common Council keep investing in it. The more you invest in the area, the more people want to be there, and then when more people visit you have justification to invest yet more money, etc., etc., ad infinitum. They did not mention that, regardless of who owns businesses on State Street or Capitol Square, the community that lives downtown and benefits from the investment and beautification of that area even when stores are closed is 80% white. These points and others were made by community members who opposed the programs.

For instance, both programs funnel money into State Street and the downtown area; the Recovery Program attempts to repair current damage and the Equity Program invests in future downtown businesses. The funding for these programs was often minimized as a small amount of money (small to whom?), but it follows a long history of investment into this area. Justice Castañeda, who is the Executive Director of Common Wealth Development and has studied the history of gentrification in this city, was recently quoted saying: “The history of Madison’s downtown is one of exclusion, corruption and of boosterism and land-grabbing…The development of the downtown neighborhoods was done with deliberate exclusion of ownership and investment opportunities for Black families and families of color, and was concurrent with the lack of investment and peripheralization of the neighborhoods that housed significant Black populations and other residents of color.” By continually pouring funds into downtown, Madison’s leaders perpetuate systems of racial and economic exclusion and segregation, even if those systems were put in place before their time. 

   Furthermore, it is problematic to assume, without their input, that Black entrepreneurs want to work in the bougie white neighborhoods of State Street and the Square—it is part of white supremacist culture to assume that “minorities” want exactly what the ruling white class has, or that we want to reflect the same systems and values that are aggrandized in State Street and downtown. Maybe we want something beautiful of our own, in our own reflection and in our own neighborhoods.Even if some business owners on State Street hold identities that are historically underrepresented, they do not automatically hold anti-racist and socially just values. Do these business owners strive to hire diversely? Do these business owners continue to call the police on Black and brown, or poor and transient, community members, exacerbating issues of inequity, injustice, and racial disparity? Do these business owners send anonymous demands for more surveillance and police oversight in their neighborhood to protect their coveted material wealth? 

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If the city really wants to protect POC business owners on State Street, funding the repair of broken windows is not enough. Are these underrepresented owners guaranteed rent control to stabilize their businesses? Is there infrastructure in place that allows business owners to report instances of racism or microaggressions they might experience from landlords or colleagues? The Mayor herself recently acknowledged that landlords were “content to have their storefronts sit vacant, and to charge rents that put tenants on razor-thin margins,” which “impacts who can afford to be on State Street.” Leading with equity and justice requires more than soliciting store owners for their ethnic backgrounds.  

After the Common Council heard public comment on the first of two resolutions related to these programs, it was revealed that there had been more last-minute changes to these resolutions. Now, the word “Downtown” was erased from the names of both of these programs. The amount for the “Recovery Program” was still $250,000, but the “Equity Program” would be given $500,000. And the money to fund these programs would now come from projects that did not directly steal from other Madison neighborhoods. It was suggested that by erasing “Downtown,” these programs could apply to business owners outside of the State Street and Capitol Square areas. However, two central problems remained. First, the program was still only applicable to businesses that sustained damage that specifically occurred during the riots on May 31 and June 1, essentially ensuring that the money would be invested in State Street regardless of the name of the program. Second, this program still funneled public taxes into private property.

My own last point against these programs was more personal, and it was directly inspired by comments made by Central BID’s Tiffany Kenney, at the Finance Committee meeting the previous night. She mentioned that the recovery program was “a city-wide concern, because this is the city center,” because downtown is the “heart of the city.” The claim that downtown is the “heart of the city” hurt me and angered me. As much as I enjoy a stroll down State Street, that is not where my heart is in this city. I was born and raised in Hawai’i by my Filipino father and white mother, and spent my late teens and early twenties living in the Pacific Northwest. Prior to moving to Wisconsin for graduate school, I did not expect to experience any kind of culture shock. I thought, having already lived on the Mainland for 10 years, I was used to it. But it was here in Madison that I first experienced being the only student of color in my class. For the first time in my life, most of the people around me on campus and milling about downtown were white. However nice and welcoming any single person was, I still felt strangely unsettled and alone. 

But in the Bay Creek neighborhood—where I can pick from one of three Asian grocery stores to purchase ingredients I grew up with, where I have seen more racial diversity on the number 4 bus than in some State Street businesses—I have made a home in Madison. So, no, downtown is not my heart of the city. My heart lies in my neighborhood, and the rest of the South Side, and in other Madison neighborhoods that are important to me. My heart is in the Asian Sweet Bakery on South Park Street that is so delicious and cheap you have to order at least six items to use your credit card. My heart is in the Burr Oak neighborhood, in the Goodman South Library where I have taught arts-based programs, and practiced speaking Spanish with toddlers. My heart is in the Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood, too, and the BP station by Fast Forward Skate Center where I can get gas after roller derby practice, and be surrounded by racial diversity and loud music blasting from rusty cars. If the Common Council asked community members, aside from those living and working in the downtown area, where their heart is, I bet they’d say something similar about their own neighborhoods. 

Ultimately, after over two hours of debate, both resolutions failed. In some sense, it felt like a win against the status quo. But in another sense, more damage had been done. Comments in favor of the recovery program centered the cost of windows, instead of the cost of persisting racial disparities and economic injustice across Madison. When equity was brought up, it came in the form of vague lip service on “reimagining” a more equitable downtown. Immigrant stories of struggle were pitted against substantial criticism of the city’s performative allyship—much of which was voiced by BIPOC Madisonians. One public speaker likened it to the Rodney King riots in LA, when Korean immigrant store owners were pitted against Black protestors in an effort to undermine that civil rights movement. 

And the damage continued when media outlets only reported the failed vote, eliciting outrage from many in the community who had not attended these many meetings. One opinion piece leveraged Black voices to argue in support of the programs by naming the racial backgrounds of three out of 20 Alders. Never mind the actual statements made during the meeting. Never mind the thoughtful comments offered by other BIPOC and immigrant Alders who voted against the resolutions. A controversy on how to appropriately and equitably spend public taxes when funding is scarce revealed a deep-seated commitment to the status quo. 

Then, at the August 4 Common Council meeting, the same resolutions came up again. At least, to community members looking at the agenda, they appeared to be the exact same resolutions. However, a more updated version was discussed at the meeting. The Equity Program and Recovery Program were separated. The former is now called the Small Business Equity and Recovery Program (SBER), and it appropriates $750,000 from existing capital projects to support the recovery of small businesses throughout Madison, especially those owned by historically marginalized individuals; it is also an investment in future BIPOC-owned businesses. This resolution was only on the agenda for introduction and not discussion, since it was totally different than before. The Downtown Recovery Program (which returned to its original name), now resolves to use the remaining $60,000 from the already existing Facade Improvement Grant program to repair State Street businesses. This $60,000 would be matched dollar for dollar by non-City sources so that the business community “puts some skin in the game,” as Alder Lindsay Lemmer put it.

One main issue with this new version of the Downtown Recovery Program was that it was so different from the original, it seemed to east-side Alder Grant Foster that it, too, should have gone through the usual process by first being introduced without discussion. Foster commented on another example of inequity in this process: unless someone is incredibly in tune with city proceedings and has the ability to follow along with the agenda, to keep up with the last-minute changes, and to spend hours of their time waiting to speak on agenda items, their voice will not be heard. Alder Rebecca Kemble noted that she would have accepted this budget amendment if it was done in consultation with the Community Development Authority, which actually has authority over this fund. 

Alder Tag Evers also made some important observations. He pointed out that of the initial $200,000 the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County raised for downtown businesses was not enough—$50,000 of which was raised in within 12 hours by 950 people—then the Mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, the Central BID, and Downtown Madison, Inc., could have called on other “pillars of the business community” to help, and the deficit would have been taken care of. But instead there were other narratives “of blame.” Blame that the City let this happen, that the Mayor let this happen, and that by extension the Common Council was at fault. And then the narrative became a narrative of entitlement. Evers continued, “Based on the precedent and the way the city has supported State Street in the past you are obligated, these voices were saying, you are obligated, City, to help us. And let’s be clear, State Street has been the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment over the years. $205 million for Overture Center for The Arts alone.” 

One community member reminded everyone that this investment of public taxes into downtown, regardless of the sum, was particularly questionable when city agencies are facing a 5% budget cut in 2021 due to the shortfall of the pandemic. This same community member observed that the statistics regarding the diversity of downtown, as they were noted in the resolution document and repeated by the Central BID, have been distorted: “You keep saying 62 percent of businesses on State Street are owned by women and people of color. But people of color are not a subset of white women… 25 POC-owned businesses out of 152 businesses on State Street is only 16 percent. Nowhere near 62 percent. It is also only 6 percent of the 390 businesses of the Downtown Improvement District. And there are still zero Black-owned businesses on State Street and downtown.”   

She went on: “Shouldn’t we use public tax dollars to close social gaps by investing in neighborhoods that don’t have downtown’s fundraising engine?” When the city prioritizes giving public tax dollars to private property owners who are able to raise $200,000 over the course of two weeks, it suggests that getting this money “has less to do with need than with what downtown businesses think the city owes them.”        

I did not speak that night, but I listened. I listened to the changes made in the resolution—changes that indicated our concerns in previous meetings were heard and acknowledged. I listened to Alders who might have supported the resolution had it gone through proper procedure and allowed more time for the community to provide informed comment. I listened to community members who were still adamant that this resolution should not pass. A vote was called to refer this resolution to the Community Development Authority for consideration at its Thursday, August 13 meeting. It passed 12 to 7. 

Reflecting after the meeting, I found myself inclined to support the new resolution once it came around again. I appreciated that the funds were not being taken from other neighborhood projects, that $750,000 might be invested into BIPOC businesses through the other new program (SBER), and that the private sector was also contributing to support its own. This seemed like another win to me, a win of equity and compromise. And then at noon on Thursday, August 6, I listened to the Madison Central BID Board meeting. 

The meeting was available for the public to hear, though not as easy to access as other public meetings unless you know to look on the agenda document for a password. I was curious how the Common Council vote would be represented. Again, I was only there to listen. 

I heard leaders from the Central BID and DMI discuss all the ways they are going to help the State Street and downtown business community survive after building damage, COVID-19, and protests that have continued almost every night since May 30. I heard these leaders praise business owners for the magnanimity they showed when they let artists paint murals on their boards as a way to show that “Black lives do matter.” I also heard various constituents and leaders talk about how important it is to take these boards down, to show the community that they are open for business. 

For the record, allowing artists to paint murals on your wooden boards is not a sufficient way to support and protect Black lives, especially when you do not acknowledge the reasons those protests occurred in the first place.

I heard a community member complain about loitering crowds playing loud music at the top of State Street, asking what can be done about them. I heard another community member say it was clear that the Common Council had an “obvious lack of knowledge” about who was on State Street. At one point, a meeting leader excitedly shared an idea that a different community member had about all the businesses in the area signing a contract of diversity, demonstrating, for example, a commitment to employing “x number” of BIPOC employees. This community member then chimed in saying that he, in fact, did not want to do this; he had heard that some businesses in other cities were being forced to do this and he wanted to know how they might avoid it. I heard Alder Mike Verveer say that the Common Council knows the downtown area is responsible for 10 percent of the city’s tax base, and they know the city will feel the effects going through the budget process in the new year “if we don’t have that tax base we’re accustomed to.” 

Funnel money into State Street so those businesses can survive this pandemic, so the city can reap the benefits of property taxes, so store owners can dictate what types of people are welcome there: that is the status quo of Madison.   

I heard Alder Verveer call the failed vote on July 21 and the delay of the vote on August 4, “one gut punch after the other by some of my colleagues in city hall.” I heard him assure his constituents that the Madison Police Department is dedicated to addressing their safety concerns by working overtime to patrol the area. I heard him commit to extending the Streatery Program through the end of the year as it is set to expire at the end of August. From other leaders, I heard talk of setting up a Tax Incremental Finance district plan to get State Street back on its feet. I heard that a private fund is being set up for Central BID businesses and it’s expected to make between $300,000 and $400,000. I heard that if some funds still remain in a 2 year period, the fund could be rolled into an endowment for downtown businesses. 

When Council members and community members alike talk about the immense privilege and investment that goes into downtown, this is what we mean. It’s not just the $200,000 raised in a couple weeks by the Boys and Girls Club, nor the city’s ability to “find” various amounts of money to repair downtown, nor the swiftness with which resolutions for downtown are drawn up and sent to the Common Council, nor the $60,000 to be included with the potential $300,000-$400,000 expected in private donations (even though Matthew Mikolajewski, director of the city’s Economic Development Division, had apparently told Alder Evers that the remaining damage required about $200,000). The privilege and investment into downtown is all of that, and the opportunity to have a Streatery Program that is supported by shutting down traffic on State Street—nevermind that every single bus route going through that street will require a detour. It’s all of that, and the tireless advocacy of Central BID and DMI representatives who have been attending meetings whether business owners do or not. It’s all of that, and the opportunity for those business owners to have regular Zoom meetings with Central BID, DMI, Alder Verveer, and Officer Kelly Donahue to keep them reassured and informed. That is privilege. 

Toward the end of the meeting, Alder Verveer also mentioned that it helps the cause if business owners write emails to their Alders and provide public comment. He said community activists are making their voices known. These community activists, he said, are organized by Facebook groups like Allies for Black Lives and Urban Triage. He encouraged his constituents to speak, even though he knows people are afraid, because it helps. 

Do you think I am not afraid to speak? Do you think I am not trying to help? 

I’m not an organizing member of either group Alder Verveer named. But if groups dedicated to racial equity and social justice, like Allies for Black Lives and Urban Triage, oppose the resolutions you’ve put forth, wouldn’t you wonder why you’re not on the same side?  

I first got involved in this resolution because I was concerned about the lack of financial support going from the City to neighborhoods of color during a global health crisis and national civil rights movement. Then I found myself in the middle of issues that are much bigger than this single resolution. I found myself alongside others fighting against the status quo of Madison—a status quo reflected in the expectation that the Council jump into action for whatever downtown business owners need, and which reveals entitlement when those needs are not met. And this is not about any single small business owner, or even a handful of business owners. This is about an entire infrastructure that is prepared to invest in downtown at any cost, even if it means taking money from other Madison neighborhoods, as long as the constituents and business leaders of downtown are satisfied.  

Thursday August 13, at 4:30, this resolution will go to the Community Development Authority. You can read the agenda and offer public comment. The next Common Council meeting, when the resolution will presumably be voted on again, is September 1, at 6:30.

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