Madison is continuing its progress toward building a public market.
The major issue seems to be where to site it. When I had my old job, we commissioned two studies by national and local experts who suggested strongly that it needed to be downtown to capture casual foot traffic. The consultants recommended the Government East parking ramp on the corner of Doty and Pinckney. The plan during my administration was to make the market the centerpiece of a complete redevelopment, including a new hotel, new office space, and a new transit hub (including a depot for inter-city busses and a bike parking facility).
Some of that plan still survives, but the current mayor has decided that the market shouldn't be downtown. He cites high costs, but markets I've visited in other cities seem to attract a good deal of diversity and local vendors, while still being located in or near the central business district. In addition, because the city already owns the Government East site, and because that site is likely to be redeveloped with new value in a taller building, I'm not sure the cost argument holds up.
Nonetheless, the mayor wants to ignore the studies we paid for and go his own way. I can't blame him for that. I rejected the first market study and went back to the drawing board myself, hoping that Union Corners (which we had just purchased) might be the answer. According to the consultants, it wasn't and they recommended Government East.
I recently visited the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, located in the challenged Phillips neighborhood, outside of the downtown. I was there to learn more details about a model that we're using in the Greenbush neighborhood redevelopment project here in Madison.
When I first visited the Global Market a few years ago, I found it to be the least impressive of the dozen or so markets I've visited around the world. The place felt dingy, the customers were few, and the shelves and display cases were poorly stocked.
But when I went back there two weeks ago, things had improved. It still ranks near the bottom of my list for public markets. A few lonely fish sat on ice in the dingy fish market. Same for the meat display. But it was still a vibrant place at noon, and the whole environment was better. I had a great inexpensive lunch at a locally-owned Mexican restaurant.
One of the challenges for public markets in addition to location is getting the vendor mix right. While the Midtown Global Market can't change its location, it looked to me like it had tweaked the vendor mix, upgrading it substantially.
All of which is to say that a public market outside of the downtown can probably work. It just increases the risk factor.
I'm told that the mayor is looking at some specific sites, though as far as I know those haven't been revealed. One place the city might look at is the empty Thorstad Chevrolet car dealership on South Park Street. That is a large site in a neighborhood with lots of people who could benefit from it both as customers and as potential vendors. And it has fairly easy access both from the Beltline and the downtown. I think it could work.
Madison is probably one place where a market outside of the downtown could be successful. What's important is that we keep moving toward the goal without getting into a classic Madison battle over the details.
[Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect that the car dealership on South Park Street is the former Thorstad Chevrolet.]