Middleton has something rare: A thriving downtown. This is a bustling neighborhood where you can walk from a 120-year-old Queen Anne home to the library, bank, church, city hall and a truly impressive array of restaurants and bars.
We're talking Lousianne's, Villa Dolce, Bavaria Café, Vin Santo, Hubbard Avenue Diner and a half-dozen more places, almost all locally owned. But on this hot summer afternoon, I'm sidled up to the bar at the Village Green, drinking a very cold beer and finishing a classic tavern cheeseburger.
That's when I come across a telltale clue as to downtown Middleton's success: A stack of promotional cards listing all the special events at the nearby Capital Brewery bier garten. Why in the world would the Village Green allow a competitor to advertise right there in the bar?
Owner Chad Boyer sets me straight. "Capital Brewery isn't competition," he says. "They bring business to the downtown. They're great for us. We have a marvelous relationship with Capital."
Famous for its Wisconsin Amber lager, Capital is indeed a major draw for downtown Middleton. Sure, it sells beer like umpteen other downtown establishments, but the outdoor bier garten closes at 9 pm and Capital doesn't offer food. So families (yes, the bier garten is kid friendly as well as dog friendly) bring in picnic baskets or order take-out from nearby restaurants whose menus are conveniently displayed. Or at 9 the adults head out to a restaurant for a late meal.
"We're the starting point, not the ending of an evening out," Capital Brewery president Carl Nolen tells me later.
Everybody benefits. The bounty of restaurants and bars reinforce one another as a destination for both neighbors and Madisonians who see downtown Middleton as an entertainment destination worthy of a drive.
The Village Green, for example is bounded on one side by the Hody Bar & Grill, which features free live music four nights a week, including Westside Andy and Mel Ford on Thursdays, and by the hip Italian bistro Villa Dolce, which specializes in gelato.
This entertainment concentration is smart economic development, and it didn't happen by chance. For more than 25 years, Middleton has worked hard at bolstering its downtown. A series of taxpayer-assisted development projects replaced the aging warehouse and agriculture-processing businesses that grew up around the historic train station that anchors the old city.
Builders like Middleton's Ron Grosse and Madison heavyweights Randy Alexander and Joe Krupp did projects. Longtime mayor Dan Ramsey kept the focus on the downtown even while the city was expanding north of the Beltline to accommodate Greenway Center and related car-focused suburban commercial development.
Veteran city planner Eileen Kelly and consultant Brian Vandewalle, who have been around since the beginning, "provide a continuing vision of what the downtown should be," notes former Ald. Julie Brunette, who built her law office downtown.
"When it became clear that retail wasn't going to be a big thing, they [and other participants] said, 'Let's make it a restaurant district,'" notes Brunette. "There was nothing haphazard in how things have happened downtown."
Vandewalle, who has since emerged as a major land-use consultant in the Midwest, says Middleton has smartly capitalized on its historic character.
"In the fast-paced Internet world, we're seeing in the Midwest in particular that consumers are looking for authenticity -- authentic business, restaurants and places," says Vandewalle. "People feel good in those places."
Count actor-playwright Tony Reitano among them. "It's a great downtown. That's what attracted us." Reitano and his wife Leslie moved from Los Angeles to Middleton in 2001. Leslie was born in Middleton and is a singer. They bought an 1868 Victorian home in the historic residential district and are busy restoring it as they raise their seven-year-old daughter.
"I can walk just about everywhere I need to go," says Reitano, who co-wrote the dinner-theater comedy "Kenosha! (Not Quite Chicago)" with Michael Bruno.
Walkability comes up time and again as a key downtown asset. For good reason too. The city has deliberately built its city hall, police and fire stations downtown so as to reinforce the downtown's convenience. The new library is an eye-catcher and a natural gathering spot, too. So is the post office.
The senior center is another downtown anchor. The Middleton Area Historical Society also calls downtown home. And the chamber of commerce. M&I Bank built a landmark branch office there. The kids have a state-of-the-art skate park. Two major churches with large congregations-St. Bernard Catholic Church and St. Luke's Lutheran Church-also call downtown home.
Retail remains spotty and is mostly specialty gift shops. There is no supermarket, but that dining-bar constellation more than compensates as a draw.
Fact is, outside of the isthmus, you won't find a healthier urban core in Dane County than Middleton's. It's all the more impressive considering how loud the siren call of suburban-style development is. But Middleton's downtown shows how old-style neighborhoods can prosper in the new century.