In the unlikely event George Austin’s fingerprints need to be taken, they won’t be hard to find. He’s left them all over Madison, especially downtown.
Some of the biggest development projects of the last 30 years—Monona Terrace, the Overture Center for the Arts, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery—were realized in no small part due to Austin’s involvement. Yet many in Madison won’t recognize his name.
Austin is not high profile because his best work is done away from cameras and headlines, which is the very reason he’s so accomplished. Whether in city government—where he spent 23 years—or, most recently, as a private consultant, Austin, 65, has quietly navigated the minefields of big personalities, big money and big bureaucracy to find the finish line on an array of complex projects.
“The deftest inside politico in Madison,” was former mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s mostly (but not entirely) admiring take on Austin in Isthmus in 2012.
Austin is also far from finished.
He is the project manager for the long-gestating Judge Doyle Square development, an ambitious $175 million public-private partnership (an Austin specialty) that will bring a hotel, apartments, parking and more to a site two blocks south of Capitol Square.
In addition, Austin is project facilitator of StartingBlock Madison, an entrepreneurial hub to be located in the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, part of a two-building mixed-use development that will include a music venue.
Austin is also steering a third major downtown project he can’t speak about publicly yet.
“I don’t want to slow down because I enjoy what I’m doing,” he says.
One might figure Austin for a Madison native, but he’s not. He grew up in Mauston, son of a variety store owner and a public health nurse. “Austin in Mauston” was the name of the store where Austin helped deliver furniture. Future governor Tommy Thompson’s law office was next door.
Civic life was part of his upbringing. Austin’s mom was an alderwoman who ran for mayor as a write-in and lost by 24 votes. There was an aunt in Madison who Austin visited often. During a lunch at Crandall’s just off the Square, the boy approached a man two tables away and went home to Mauston clutching a piece of paper: “To my good friend George—Gov. Gaylord Nelson.”
He wanted to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and did, arriving a month after the August 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall. There’d been music in the Mauston house growing up, and Austin played trombone in the UW Marching Band directed by Mike Leckrone, a man Austin admires very much.
“One of the most talented leaders I’ve ever been around,” he says. “He instills a sense of esprit de corps, a focus on excelling. You always wanted to do a perfect show.” Austin caught the college football bug at the same time. He hasn’t missed a Badgers home game since showing up on campus. That’s 48 seasons and counting.
Austin had graduate degrees in business and public policy when he became a city of Madison budget analyst in 1976, eventually rising to director of planning and development. He served five mayors (Paul Soglin twice) in the next 23 years, but his most fortuitous meeting came early, in 1978, when he was introduced to a new planning department employee named Martha Vukelich. They married in 1980 and have four grown children and three grandkids.
Using tax incentives and public-private partnerships, Austin helped city leaders begin a downtown turnaround in the 1980s. Momentum built slowly. The game changer, for the city and for Austin, was Monona Terrace. Mayor Soglin made Austin the city’s point person for the convention center in 1990, and he delivered. It took seven years.
“Nothing of substance happens in a straight line,” Austin says. There were five lawsuits to stop the project. “You’re going to have successes and setbacks. You build coalitions, and keep your eye on the prize.”
Not long after Monona Terrace opened in 1997, George Nelson, a Madison business leader who helped bring it to fruition, called Austin for lunch. “He wouldn’t tell me what it was about,” Austin says, but he met Nelson at Maple Bluff Country Club.
Jerry Frautschi was at the table. Although the Overture Center for the Arts was a concept that came later, the seeds were planted at that lunch. Austin left his city job and went to work for Frautschi. In the end, Overture was nearly as contentious as Monona Terrace. Who knew a gift of $210 million for Overture Center could be so controversial?
Austin, who now works as a private consultant—though he shares office space with Frautschi—has only the highest praise for Frautschi and his wife, Pleasant Rowland, calling working with them “the highlight of my career.”
He did it again with the Block 100 project on State Street. That’s the development that in 2012 caused Cieslewicz to express his concerns in Isthmus about Frautschi gentrifying downtown to his own taste, a piece in which he called Austin “the insider’s insider” and “bright,” “smooth,” but “not infallible.”
Like he always does, Austin kept his eye on the prize. He says Block 100, which was finished in 2014 and includes Cento restaurant, was worth the “rather intense debate.” Net operating revenue for Block 100 goes to Overture.
All that’s left to wonder is whether the unflappable Austin ever loses his cool. Has he ever wanted to punch a wall?
“The answer is yes,” he says, and grins. “Just not in public.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com.
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