Seizing the City

inevitably feel some discomforting conflicts each year when the editors of this magazine and I go through the process of picking our annual Best of Madison Business awardees. On the one hand it is an embarrassment of riches, a bigger-than-we-deserve list of talented, successful business people with deep roots and big hearts and ideas begging to be shared.

Every year we think we’ve come up with the best group of winners ever. And every year we have. But inherent in the exercise is the requisite reflection on the role the business community plays in what makes Madison special, which unfortunately includes not-so-stereotypical tensions between the private and public sectors—an unnecessary component of our anti-business image around the world.

It’s hard to know where to start with this discussion. I feel the need to apologize for the indelible rose tint of my glasses when I admit to finding the many qualities of my hometown of these last thirty-five years unique. We have an activist citizenry that supports an activist government that provides high quality services to all. That’s a good thing. We have a progressive business community that creates wealth by integrating those services into a healthy, competitive businesses environment combined with smart workers and savvy consumers who are wealthier and better educated than most. So why do we make everything so hard? Why do so many business folks and so many community advocates feel hated on by one another?

Here’s what I’d like to see in 2010. I’d like Mayor Cieslewicz, Chamber of Commerce president Jennifer Alexander, Madison Community Foundation president Kathleen Woit and the presidents/chancellors of UW, MATC and Edgewood College to appoint themselves and/or one of the smartest people they know to a blue-ribbon panel with the sole purpose of creating a business plan for the city of Madison. If I were doing the appointing I’d insist on Paul Soglin and John Wiley, too—and Brian Vandewalle and Rebecca Ryan would co-facilitate—but that’s just me. Its tasks should include the make-up and scope of city boards and commissions, review of zoning and TIF policies, mergers and consolidations of departments and agencies, new tools for citizen engagement and influence, a list of the top priorities for the next decade and anything else it comes to believe would make us look like we know what we’re doing. Like we are exactly the city where the next Google wants to be.

And I want that group to come up with a list of recommendations in exactly six months that would go to the city council for an up or down vote (and you’ll get no argument from me if one of the recommendations is to redistrict the city and shrink the size of the Madison Common Council—and look out, Dane County Board, because you’re next.)

I’ll even throw in the name for the effort. It’s the same as the cover story of this very magazine. I’d call it Seize the City. The spirit would be the same for both—recognize the gifts, beauty, natural resources, talent, knowledge, fun, creativity, and heart and soul of Madison and celebrate it as a great place to live and a great place to do business. I think I just might ask our award winners about the idea at our on the 21st. Come join us if you’d like to hear what they say.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.