The Madison Public Market and other things we didn’t completely screw up this year

We’re taking a brief pause for gratitude here at Capitol Punishments.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

We’re taking a brief pause for gratitude here at Capitol Punishments.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

One of the downsides of writing a snarky column on bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors is that, while it can be cathartic (“I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it”), it can also get weighed down with negativity. I have no idea how many people regularly read this column but I sometimes wonder if they picture me hunched over with a permanent scowl, barking at children and service workers. (I am not like that! I swear!)

This week, I’m compelled to turn down the snark. While I’m not a big holiday person, and I am very aware of the problematic origin story, I love Thanksgiving. I love cooking and eating great big spreads of rich fall foods with my kin or chosen family. It’s a great ritual signaling the changing of seasons; that it’s time to slow down and get cozy. And as corny as it sounds, with a belly full of food, a roof over my head, and snuggled under the impossibly warm and soft tortilla blanket my sister gave me so I can roll myself into a human burrito, my mind turns to gratitude.  

And we have had some good news recently (albeit with some caveats, and I’ll include those). Despite all my (well-founded!) anxieties about the midterms, we avoided many of the potential worst-case outcomes—no violence in the streets nor armed militias intimidating voters or poll workers. The candidates who lost in Wisconsin conceded (except the Secretary of State candidates, but since Governor Tony Evers was reelected and state legislative Republicans do not have a supermajority, it’s kind of a moot point). All of our problems were not solved, and there’s still a lot of work to do, but it could have been much worse. There are still opportunities to make meaningful changes—namely the upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court elections this spring.

And this last election showed that Dane County, particularly the Madison area, has become an electoral powerhouse, continuing to become bigger and bluer and with an 80% turnout rate at the midterms, some of that driven by the youth vote.

Despite Dane County and Madison’s reputations as liberal havens, local governments’ 2023 budget discussions have shown the reality is more complicated. (We’ll have more reporting on that soon.) One bright spot was the county and city both voting to pitch in the final $6 million to fund the Madison Public Market—$1.5 million from the county and $4.5 million from the city.

It wasn’t a painless process. The funding wasn’t originally in the city’s budget, and Madison Common Council President Keith Furman has been vocal in his opposition. Even after hearing from business owners who went through the Market Ready program, Furman called it a “blank check” (which it isn’t, as it’s literally for $4.5 million), and he tried to grill representatives from the Madison Public Market Foundation on why they predicted the market wouldn’t be profitable the first year. (I don’t know Keith, why are almost no legitimate businesses profitable the first year?) 

And like at countless local government bodies, the discussion at last week’s budget hearings went off the rails with speculation on what else the money could be spent on: “Why don’t we fund affordable housing?” “What about a market at the Amtrak station?” “What about the south side?” 

But cooler heads pointed out that it wasn’t a question of either/or. If you want a market at the (still non-existent) Amtrak station, more affordable housing, or a market on the south side, you can put together a team, do some studies, draw up some plans and THEN talk about funding. But for the 2023 budget, the question was, “are we going to provide $4.5 million for the public market?” Or were we going to let all the time, energy, and potential opportunities—for entrepreneurs who are people of color, women, and/or immigrants, and for a divested part of our city—go to waste, or make a small investment toward getting it done?

The proposal won 17-3.

If I were a member of the public market foundation, I would have put out the call for bids yesterday. And they should move forward assuming that public funding for the project has been tapped out, if for no other reason than to save us from Furman’s I-told-you-so’s.

As frustrating as the process was, it also showed just how many people deeply want to see this project succeed and are excited about its potential. The foundation should tap into their excitement instead, if not for additional funding then maybe tapping into the sweat-equity or creativity that the community could bring. Imagine a public market where community members could do a little shopping, grab a snack, support their neighbors, and point to the walls they painted and the furniture they assembled. It would be worth every penny.

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