A Suburb Rising

A Suburb Rising
Neil Heinen

I‘ve spent a little time in the last month or so with Fitchburg mayor Shawn Pfaff. Pfaff’s an interesting guy: early forties, sharp, likeable, with just enough self-awareness of the perception of politics today to temper his obvious political skills, instincts and, yes, passion.

He was a Fitchburg alderman before being elected mayor. Before that, he taught middle school social studies. His education includes a stint at the UW–Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs, where Madison mayor Paul Soglin was one of his teachers. If memory serves, it was Soglin who once referred to Fitchburg as a banana republic, but that was a long time ago. Today Fitchburg is, well, hmmm. Exactly what is Fitchburg?

A recent lunch with Mayor Pfaff and his subsequent visit with the WISC editorial board, at the head of which I sit, led me to reacquaint myself with Madison’s southern suburb. Actually, that’s not true. It led me to acquaint myself. Because Fitchburg has changed dramatically in the thirty-five-plus years I’ve been covering news in Dane County. And it is about to change even more dramatically. And I’ve come to the conclusion that while much of the change is dependent on Fitchburg’s relationship to Madison, much of Madison’s future is dependent on its relationship to Fitchburg.

As the Soglin example illustrates, Fitchburg has never really enjoyed the suburban status of Middleton or Verona. It was a kind of unruly mix of farmland to the south, multi-family or even student housing to the north, a few scattered starter-mansions and not much else. My first job in this business was at WIBA Radio, and in 1978 the drive out to the studios on Fish Hatchery and Lacy roads was pretty much a drive out to nowhere. Even today it’s hard to describe any one area of Fitchburg as “downtown Fitchburg,” although there are in fact some pretty attractive and feasible candidates.

But to be exposed to Pfaff’s grasp of what his city is and where it’s going, to witness his excitement and energy for Fitchburg, is to understand that this has the makings of a twenty-first century new urban community. I’m thinking Aurora to Denver, or Redmond to Seattle, or maybe Round Rock to Austin. Fitchburg’s not there yet. But it might be soon.

First of all, Fitchburg has been strongly influenced by two major businesses: one in the city and one outside. Bill Linton had his reasons for locating Promega out in those farm fields just south of the actual DNR fish hatchery. But today the biotech firm employs seven hundred people at the campus in what is now known as the Agora Fitchburg Center, and Linton’s commitment to Fitchburg is huge. Epic Systems may not be in Fitchburg, but a whole lot of the company’s six thousand employees drive through it every day and there are a fair number of them who’d like to shorten the commute, or at least have a place to stop for something to eat. You get the picture.

Promega and Epic are important to Fitchburg’s growth, but certainly not the only reasons for the 743 businesses that now call Fitchburg home or a population that has grown to almost 26,000. Or the emerging Fitchburg Technology Neighborhood, Novation Campus, Fitchburg Center Civic & Technology Campus and the Uptown Urban Business District. There are now hip restaurants and bars, farmers’ markets and more retail. There’s even a vision for a convention center/hotel.

But what really gets me excited is Pfaff’s embrace of Fitchburg’s diversity. He speaks with pride and a genuine sense of inclusion of African American, Hispanic and Southeast Asian Fitchburgians taking leadership roles and creating a vision for a city that welcomes creativity and innovation. He has a big vision for the role Aldo Leopold Elementary School can play in Fitchburg. I say we’d be smart to pay attention to Fitchburg. It clearly didn’t rank second in our last year for nothing.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.