Building Madison into a World Class Region

Tom Murphy of the Urban Land Institute spoke at this year’s annual Downtown Madison Inc (DMI) dinner. Murphy is the former mayor of Pittsburgh and had some suggestions for Madison's future. He showed passion as he communicated four ingredients to build a world class region. Investment in infrastructure, regional cooperation, improvement of quality of life, and leadership are some of the key issues facing the future of Madison.

"The US Highway Interstate system was the last major investment in America's infrastructure. China is investing over $160 Billion into new projects this year," exclaimed Murphy. Madison has certainly invested a lot of money in an assortment of public infrastructure projects. Such notable projects include the Monona Terrace, Overture Center, and Dane County airport. Murphy is a self-proclaimed zealot for landscape architecture and gives props to Madison for the architectural excellence in its public buildings. “Too many cities have just settled for an infrastructure that says ‘it’ll do’. Madison doesn’t have that problem yet.” However, Murphy argued that there’s still much to do in terms of regional transportation.

Transportation can be a hotly contested issue and is of critical importance to the mission of DMI. John Robison, Chair of the DMI Transportation & Parking Committee, says, “With our university and our progressive tradition, Dane County has always looked to the future. We need a progressive regional transportation system to help ensure a vibrant future for our county.”

Of course regional transportation is important because Madison is not an island unto itself. Many people live in some the surrounding communities of Fitchburg, Middleton, or Stoughton and yet work in Madison. As our community continues to grow, Murphy argues that we need to start thinking with more regional cooperation. He cited examples from Denver as 32 municipalities came together recently to come up with their future development and transportation solutions. St. Paul recently came together with 188 different municipalities and 7 counties and now share 40% of their tax base. “When you bring together all the leaders in a region to share these kinds of resources you can change the whole dialogue.”

I grew up just south of Madison in the Village of Oregon. It’s a small town of only 8721 people and was only around 6000 when I was in Middle/High School. Oregon is a very nice, quiet, and safe community. In fact, I thought it was okay, but really I thought it was very boring as a child. I recall many times that it would have been pretty cool if I could take a bus or train into Madison to check out state street or other areas of Madison.

Many people in the Madison area appreciate the large network of bike trails through the city, arboretum, and beyond. Susan Schmitz, Executive Director for DMI remarked how she often bikes to work and that, “There are not many places in America that are like that.” Other things that contribute to our quality of life are the numerous parks, the beautiful lakes, and an overall good economy. The economic strength of Madison is noted in a new bizjournals study that ranks Madison at the top of the list.

Economic strength is one factor that leads to a good quality of life, but a good community is often a result of good leadership. Obviously the Mayor of Madison carries some the burden for leading Madison into the future. Other leaders may come from the university, government, or other parts of the business sector. One person worthy of recognition for his leadership includes Steven Schooler from Porchlight, Inc. He was recognized at the DMI annual dinner with the “Community Asset Award” for 2008. Porchlight’s mission states that they are, “offering a helping hand. Not just a handout”. Homelessness is challenging for any community and Steve passionately leads the Madison area in helping the homeless.

The other community asset award came from the leadership of Steve Brown Apartments, Executive Management Inc, and the University of Wisconsin for their collaborative efforts at the “University-Square project”. This successful endeavor weaves together a multi-use building and further contributes to the vitality of Madison.

As the Madison area positions itself to compete in the global economy of the 21st century, it needs to strongly consider more investments in infrastructure, find ways to look at Madison as a larger region, improve our quality of life, and produce good leaders. These are difficult challenges with a variety of answers. As our community changes and looks to the future these issues might be worth discussing.

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