In the mid-1990s, the Common Council's finance committee met behind closed doors to consider the city's economic offer to keep the expanding medical software company Epic Systems in Madison.
"The emphasis was on following our [subsidy] rules and practices," recalls one attendee, former Ald. Judy Olson. "There was no one there to advocate for the jobs we stood to lose." She says the city's leaders seemed to have no idea of Epic's immense potential.
Epic chose Verona, and the rest is history. After spending more than a half-billion dollars in a dazzling state-of-the-art campus, Epic is now Dane County's largest private employer with nearly 4,000 workers.
Olson is chagrined at Madison's ignorance, noting as do others that the city lost jobs and good development while pushing urban sprawl further out into Dane County.
Under Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, City Hall isn't as clueless about job growth as it was under his predecessor, Sue Bauman. But that's scant comfort given Cieslewicz's own mixed record and the serious challenges confronting the broader community.
Madison and Dane County face hard times in 2011. The engine that has powered so much growth - an ever-expanding cadre of well-compensated government workers - has blown up. And with conservative Gov. Scott Walker taking office, hope is not on the way.
The Doyle years brought a sizable hit to state employment. During his eight years, state data shows, the government payroll dropped 6.7%, from 35,620 to 33,237. Add in another 3,656 unfilled state jobs as of November - almost 11% of all state jobs - and it's clear the state's belt has already been tightened.
Doyle's austerity-driven furlough program (eight unpaid days off) produced a 3.1% cut in state paychecks. The city estimates this translates to about $70 million lost to the Dane County economy. (Overall, the Madison metro area had 84,125 public employees at the end of 2009.)
Who knows what will happen in the wake of the Legislature failing to approve 17 state labor contracts? One guess is that Walker will then demand the number of furlough days be doubled or tripled.
That would be a big hit for workers and the communities they live in. But is it unfair? Maybe not. Reality is that the state can't shake the paralyzing grip of the recession, including a huge $2.7 billion budget deficit. There will be pain until the economy turns around.
Thrive, the regional development group, recently highlighted our woes, comparing the Madison area to five other college towns/state capitals (Lincoln, Neb.; Columbus, Ohio; Salem, Ore.; Columbia, S.C.; and Richmond, Va.).
Four of the five experienced better job growth over the last decade, and four out of five had a higher percentage growth in new businesses. Equally telling was that Austin, Texas - another famously liberal and proudly eccentric town that Madison is often measured against - wasn't even on the list of comparable communities.
That contrast would have been even more unflattering.
Austin boasted the strongest job growth of the 10 American cities that Newsweek recently cited as best positioned to bounce back from the recession. Austin, it seems, demonstrates that a community can be staunchly liberal and pro-business at the same time.
What can Madison do?
First of all, economic development should be front and center in next spring's mayoral and county executive elections. The candidates need to be grilled on their philosophy and proposals.
Yes, philosophy. Much of Madison's problem is attitudinal. For a whole host of venerable liberal reasons, Madison can be hellish on business.
The problem, says business consultant Kay Plantes, is that too many Madisonians don't connect the dots. "They don't see the unintended consequences" of their good intentions.
Give a proposed business expansion the third degree in terms of a lengthy and costly review, and the firm may head to the suburbs with its jobs.
"That's why we've ended up with so much urban sprawl," says Plantes. "It's bad for transportation, it's bad for the environment, and it's very bad for the Madison school district."
Of course, wanting the jobs and getting them are two different things. It's tempting to blame the guy in charge, Cieslewicz, for the city's failings. But the community's problems don't stop at the city limits, and misguided liberals aren't the only problem.
Under the sway of talk radio, local conservatives have grown shrill and irrelevant. The business community, meanwhile, seems confused and uninspired. It's baffling, for example, why it rallied behind Mayor Dave's $16 million public subsidy of the Edgewater Hotel expansion and its low-wage hospitality jobs.
Madison and Dane County need good-paying jobs. Our community needs to support the next Epic. It needs to recognize that those new good jobs probably won't be on a government payroll.
Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.