When Madison opened its Farmers' Market in 1911, exultant officials declared a citywide holiday, closed city hall and fed 5,000 celebrants sandwiches and pickles, while a large orchestra played operatic selections.
The new market, built at a cost of $55,000 (about $1.25 million in today's dollars) and located on East Mifflin Street at Blount Street, was hailed as "the finest in the state," according to David Mollenhoff's indispensable chronicle, Madison: A History of the Formative Years.
For Madison's leaders, it was another Progressive success. "Instead of a private, open-air, unofficial, unregulated, saloon-infested, obscenity-laced, dirty farmers market [near the Capitol Square on East Washington Avenue], Madison would have a clean, enclosed, sanitary, well-designed and well regulated municipal market," Mollenhoff recounts.
No burden was foreseen for the taxpayers. The market was designed to be self-sufficient, with the small fees charged to vendors paying for a full-time manager.
There was just one problem: Farmers hated the location. The new market was five blocks from the bustling Square and its farmer-friendly saloons and hookers and near a cattail marsh where the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood was yet to arise.
In response, Mollenhoff writes, the peeved farmers boycotted the facility, and within a month the city was losing money. Consumers, meanwhile, were turning to the convenient neighborhood groceries springing up across Madison and, thanks to revolutionary communications technology (the telephone!), could order groceries for delivery to their home.
The city had misjudged the market's feasibility, and it proved an "instant flop," says Mollenhoff. One hundred years later, the same sort of high-minded goals could meet a rude economic comeuppance in a municipal Public Market to be built a block off the Capitol Square.
Madison can't afford to repeat history.
For sure, the public market is beguiling in the abstract. Imagine a glistening 10- or 11-story office tower rising next to the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co., where the aging Government East parking ramp now sits. Picture the first floor with 51 vendors situated inside a festive kiosk environment selling everything from chocolate to seafood to wine, with another 30 carts and stalls offering local farm products and goodies. A consultant predicts 808 new jobs.
Sounds marvelous, but there is reason for skepticism.
Real estate developers I've talked with see any number of major problems. Among other things, they say the costly, open-space, "clear-span" construction needed for the Public Market would drive up construction expenses to the point where the building's rental rates would be dangerously expensive for the Madison real estate market. They warn that managing so many small and financially at-risk tenants is difficult, and worry about the impact on existing restaurants and the Wednesday Farmers' Market.
"The Public Market would be a nice thing for Madison, but my concern is that will end up requiring a very large taxpayer subsidy," says developer Sue Springman. "If it does, we need to know that going in and not be surprised later."
In a city stung by the Overture Center miscalculations, Springman's warning ought to be taken seriously.
For newly inaugurated Mayor Paul Soglin, the Public Market is just one in a series of difficult development projects awaiting his review. Next to the library expansion, the most pressing is the joint redevelopment of the Government East parking ramp and the adjacent Madison Municipal Building block, both keys to the success of a huge 12-block transit-oriented development plan.
A stunning $1.3 million will be spent on consultants. Some $930,000 comes from a federal transportation program dedicated to "intermodal" movement, which will predetermine the plan's outcome.
High-speed rail may have been killed by Gov. Scott Walker, and commuter rail seems kaput, but Madison will persist in planning for both at Monona Terrace. Ditto for a bike hub and possibly a bus station to serve the Greyhound and other buses.
Given the land constraints of the isthmus, "the city is trying to jam 10 gallons into a five-gallon hat," sighs downtown activist Troy Thiel.
Everybody agrees that planning this 12-block area is breathtakingly complicated. Consider the design implications of the city wanting to start building a 1,400-stall parking ramp under Block 88 (the Municipal Building lot) and Block 105 (Government East) without knowing what's going on top.
The Block 88 dream is for the Marcus Corp. to build a 275-room convention hotel, tearing down the back half of the Municipal Building in the process. Block 105 would see the Public Market occupying the first floor of that office tower. Tenants, though, haven't yet been identified, except possibly (but not for sure!) city offices lost to the new hotel. Who would own the building? Hmm, wait for the consultants on that one.
And if your head isn't hurting yet, there's this scenario: Everything collapses like a house of cards if the hotel isn't built. The city won't need new office space. The hotel won't need up to 400 stalls in the underground ramp. Wow, this may be just too complicated for Madison to get right.
It doesn't help that the Public Market is characteristic of Madison's never-pull-the plug planning culture. Like the long-running Central Park proposal, the Public Market idea has garnered important but limited support over the years, landed a periodic planning grant as a lifeline and inexorably advanced to the point where the investment of so much time and dollars becomes a major reason in itself for proceeding.
Now the Public Market idea is front and center. But consumer demands change, and so do the city's needs and resources. Launching a good project at the wrong time and in the wrong place can be disastrous, as Madison history shows.
Welcome to office, Mayor Soglin.
Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.