Downtown Madison IS Safe

ell, here we are again. In November 2004, Madison Magazine columnist John Roach issued a negative opinion piece titled “The State of State.” In the January 2005 issue of the magazine I responded. Now in the May 2008 edition Roach attacks the downtown again (“A Safer Madison“). It too requires a response.

Mr. Roach began by talking about a safer Madison but immediately devolved into bad things happening downtown. In the last three years, downtown Madison has continued to grow and improve to become one of the most vibrant downtowns in this country. Is our community facing challenges connected to safety, homelessness and poverty? Yes! But these are challenges that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and city leaders have taken on and developed numerous strategies to address. Roach questioned whether “State Street is becoming a Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” I can say, unequivocally, absolutely not, for a variety of reasons.

The city has enacted a more effective panhandling ordinance, which has drastically limited panhandling from State Street and Capitol Square. In addition, hundreds of new residents live downtown, and parking has returned to the Square (thank you, Mayor Dave). Physical improvements to both State Street and the Square, to be completed this fall, include new pedestrian lighting, new benches and planters. Overture Center for the Arts is busy attracting patrons to the central city.

Together, these improvements have resulted in many new and exciting locally owned businesses springing to life. Some of the most recent additions to revitalizing the Capitol Square include Fromagination Artisanal Cheese, Sucre Patisserie & Dessert Lounge, Wait Chiropractic, the Old Fashioned restaurant and Café Soleil. Before we paint with such a negative broad brush we should ask them how business is. They will tell us it is great! In the last four years State Street and the Capitol Square have experienced a net gain of fourteen businesses and have received national recognition for locally owned businesses and their use/promotion of locally grown products.

Statements about panhandlers, the felonious population, the driftless culture, the negligent homeless policy, and the murder of one street person by another are used in Roach’s opinion column to lump all of these complicated societal issues into one neat little pile and claim that downtown Madison is not safe. As Mayor Dave mentioned at a recent Downtown Madison, Inc., leadership meeting, we clearly have challenges in our community that need to be addressed, and we are tackling them head-on. At the same time, we must refuse to allow these challenges—or fiery rhetoric related to them—to define us as a community.

We have faced challenges in the past and found positive solutions. One prime example: Halloween. This once riotous event has turned the corner and is headed in the right direction after two safe years. How was this accomplished? The community pulled together and made difficult but necessary changes that improved and enhanced the event.

Another example: After a number of strong-arm robberies downtown in 2006 and 2007, Mayor Dave and city leaders implemented the Downtown Safety Initiative, which has reduced assault and burglary numbers in the central city.

I would guess that statements such as we are “naïve and negligent” will not sit well with the citizens of this community. Since when did we back off from challenges—challenges that are part of making sure that this city and our downtown remain vibrant, beautiful, clean and safe for all citizens? We need to commit ourselves to positive solutions to address the tough issues before us. That approach has worked in the past and will work again. I look forward to working with the community to maintain downtown Madison as a vibrant community asset.

Susan Schmitz is president of Downtown Madison, Inc.