Dan Bertler sometimes feels like he's living in a different Madison than a year ago.
"I would say the city has done a 180-degree turnaround in the last four to five months," says Bertler, the president of Supreme Structures, a local development firm that builds commercial and residential structures. He thinks Madison officials are suddenly much easier to work with when it comes to approving building projects.
"In the city of Madison, at one time, you would have to basically put your project together - your site grading, lighting, layout, elevation - have everything put together, and then get fed to the dogs," says Bertler. "Lately, they've been saying, 'If you're thinking about doing a project, c'mon on down.'"
With the economy in the tank, just about everyone is preaching the importance of economic development, building the tax base and being friendly to business.
Officials in Madison, as everywhere, have always given lip service to these ideas. But in practice the demands of process and the interests of neighborhoods and citizens have held sway. Projects have been micromanaged; proposals have been squelched.
But in recent months, observers say, Madison has been making strides, learning to speak the lingo of economic development. Credit goes to Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and a Common Council that has learned the importance of being earnest about the business community's concerns.
In December, the city hired a new economic development director, Tim Cooley, with bona fides for the job. (The mayor's first choice, a former school board member and community activist, sparked a business revolt because he lacked experience with economic development).
Last week, the council held an informational meeting to talk about the economy and economic development. They heard some depressing statistics about unemployment and stagnating wages, as well as some anecdotes about how hard it is to run a business in this town - a familiar refrain in recent years, one the mayor has tried to change.
In the past few months, the city has tried to make it simpler for developers with new projects. Its "One Stop Shop" website provides regulations from several city agencies. Eventually, the mayor wants to have a physical one-stop shop in city hall that developers can visit.
But Cieslewicz insists this new business-friendly approach doesn't mean the city is abandoning its commitment to good projects. There needs to be a balance, he says, between promoting economic development and protecting neighborhoods.
"We need to look for unnecessary irritants [to business] and eliminate those," he says. "[But] any developer who comes to Madison to build without looking at the impact their project might have on the community...probably shouldn't be here."
Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park, agrees things have improved. He credits the business community itself with being more of a force.
"There's a heightened level of activism and interest that's drawn the attention of policy makers," says Bugher, who two years ago resigned in protest as chair of the city's Economic Development Commission. "In the past, there's always been this lack of recognition that businesses - and small businesses in particular - have been important to the community development programs."
Cooley, a graduate of the UW-Madison who spent the past 20 years working in economic development in Orange County, Calif., is still getting acquainted in his new job. But he agrees Madison is often seen as hostile to business.
"I've heard that quite a bit, and I think that still is a perception," says Cooley. "It's softening a little bit, but there's always room to improve."
Cooley wants to make sure Madison doesn't lose more of its tax base to outlying areas. He notes that average household income is stagnating in the city, but growing in the suburbs. "That tells you that highly educated professionals are moving to the suburbs," he says.
Although he's well versed in grim economic indicators, Cooley thinks Madison has plenty of reasons for hope: a major research university, an educated workforce, good transit systems (though a bigger airport would be nice), low crime, cultural and family attractions. All position the city well for "being a big growth area after the recession," he says.
Cooley hopes to play off the city's strengths to attract new employers and retain current ones: "The threat is not recognizing what business and industry need to succeed."
But just what it means to be "business-friendly" and whether that's always a good thing are open to debate. Oversight and process are not necessarily bad. In Madison, they've kept more than a few bad ideas from happening.
Cooley says some of the country's most heavily regulated areas - like Charleston, S.C., California's Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas - are places where businesses want to locate.
"There's a subtle difference between a regulated place and being able to work through those regulations," Cooley says. In other words, a good regulatory system won't hinder economic development.
In Madison, says developer Bertler, much of the problem is that neighborhood groups are simply too powerful and the NIMBY philosophy dominates.
"A lot of neighborhoods have got more power than you and me in the city," he says. "It's a fight. The neighborhoods, they've got so much power they can literally say, we want the buildings to look like this, or we don't want underground fueling."
He singles out the Common Council, saying it included "some pretty liberal" members who make things difficult. That's why he's pleased that Ald. Brenda Konkel has been voted out of office.
Konkel, a champion of neighborhood causes who lost reelection to Bridget Maniaci last week, dismisses such talk. She says the problem with Madison's approach to business isn't that it's too hostile, but too random.
"Instead of saying, 'Let's spend $5 million on economic development,' we do things ad hoc and throw money at things," she says. "Anything that looks like economic development, people fall all over it. But there's no rhyme or reason to it."
But Konkel agrees the process has been simplified.
"Developers think that the development process is difficult. I think we've taken steps to make it less difficult," she says. "We do development plans to make it predictable, but then they come up with different ideas of what to do."
As Konkel sees it, developers regard any sort of oversight as onerous: "Business doesn't like to be regulated, and government regulates business. I'm sure if they'd had it their way there'd be no regulations."