I love end-of-the-year lists. Ten best movies of 2013. Ten best new beers. Ten best albums. Celebrities who passed away. And, of course, the top news stories of the year.
So, here's my take on the ten most important news stories of 2013 in Madison. They aren't necessarily the ones that got the most front-page treatment or most pixels, but in my view, they're the ones that will have the most impact into 2014 and beyond.
Since taking on the Madison schools superintendent's position in April, Cheatham has impressed nearly everybody in doing what is arguably the toughest job in the city. She may have received a brief honeymoon period, so 2014 could be a bigger test. My bet is that she passes again with flying colors. The biggest question is how long she stays here.
The popular Madison police chief took hits throughout the last year after the tragic death of Paul Heenan, a local musician shot by Officer Stephen Heimsness after an inebriated Heenan charged him on a dark east-side street. Wray, who almost always struck the right tone in how he communicated policing to the Madison community, stumbled on this one. But the broader truth is that Wray rebuilt the department after years of listless leadership under Richard Williams.
It's hard to separate this story from the last one since they're tied up together, but not the way most people might think. Wray probably would have left even earlier if it hadn't been for the mess that he wanted to see set right before he left. The enduring question here is how a guy like Heimsness ever got on the Madison police force in the first place and how he stayed as long as he did. A department that routinely has its pick of top applicants somehow let a guy with what appear to be some pretty significant anger issues onto its team. The incident may result in a better, more open process to review officer-involved shootings, but it should also prompt a review of how Madison officers are selected from the huge annual pool of applicants.
Madison has a reputation -- sometimes well-earned but often not -- for being a place that can't put two bricks together. A new Central Library has been a need in the community for about a couple of decades. And this year, after the usual twists and turns -- and some unusual ones -- the place opened to rave reviews. Following the completion of the Goodman pool, another civic ambition decades in the making, our reputation for endless debate may be cracking a bit.
A number of stories centered on the homeless this year. The Central Library opened with an acknowledgment that the homeless will be part of the scene there. I thought it was an especially humane way of dealing with the issue. Less humane proposals to buy the homeless bus tickets out of town or run them out of the City-County Building didn't fly. With little help from the city, the county is moving forward with a day shelter, but not in time for this winter. Meanwhile, Occupy Madison is testing tiny mobile homes for the homeless. If they're successful, the little house on the trailer idea might be a national model.
The huge redevelopment just southeast of the Capitol Square is encountering growing opposition as the Common Council and community activists question its overall price tag and TIF subsidy. It's shaping up to be Madison's next big development fight.
With 40,000 students, 16,000 faculty and staff, and countless spin-offs and campus-based startups, the UW is the heart of Madison's economy and culture. So the person who runs the place (to the extent that anybody can) is automatically a big local player. Rebecca Blank comes from Washington and its world of cutthroat politics -- just the sort of background that is needed in this job. It means she won't make the political mistakes of the charismatic Biddy Martin, but charisma is an asset. So far no missteps, but little excitement either.
And so does East Washington Avenue. A previous far-sighted city administration purchased the old Don Miller used car site and land-banked it. Now, East Wash is in the midst of a renaissance, starting with this new apartment building and its ground-level retail. There will be a lot more to come, on the adjoining 800 block and beyond.
Whew. That was a close one. Jerry Frautschi, who (along with his family) ranks with the Goodman brothers among Madison's great all time philanthropists, had one really bad idea. He bought up the buildings on the triangular 100 block of State Street with the idea of tearing them all down and creating a grand plaza and unobstructed view of the Capitol from the gleaming big windows of his Overture Center. A guy who has done so much good (Overture, the Children's Museum, the new Central Library, the Edgewater, and on and on) for the community should get a pass on one really terrible idea. And, to his credit, he backed off and instead invested millions more on what is shaping up to be a very nice and historically sensitive rehab of the block. Classy move, Jerry.
10. Leadership changes almost everywhere
I saved the biggest for last. This may be the most important story not just of 2013 but of the young decade. I split out the Madison schools superintendent, Madison police chief, and the UW chancellor because they are each specifically important to the community. But the truth is that Madison may be undergoing the biggest and quickest change in community leadership in recent memory. Think about it. In addition to the three posts I just mentioned, in the space of about three years we will have had a new county executive, new Madison fire chief, new UW System president, new leader at Madison College, new head of the Chamber of Commerce, new publisher at the State Journal, new president at Edgewood College, and new president of the Madison Community Foundation. In some cases there were improvements, and in some cases competence was replaced by competence, but in few cases do I think that we took a step back.
That's my list for the year. Feel free to disagree or add your own stories that I might have missed. But whatever you do, have a great 2014.