A Hail Mary play

What it will take to save the Madison Public Market?
1122 Editorialcontent Business Report Opener
The Madison Public Market project was set to have shovels in the ground in November but now has an uncertain future. (MSR Design)

The members of the Madison Public Market Foundation are hoping their project isn’t the one that got away. Years from now, they are hoping it is a story of success, a story of a marketplace that hits their single-year estimates of serving more than 100 businesses — many of them minority-owned — generating $16 million in sales, drawing at least 500,000 visitors, and creating $20 million in local economic impact.

That’s the story they want to tell. However, now that the city of Madison has withdrawn its application for a $3.4 million federal grant, a key to the project’s financing, the project is left with a narrow window in which to achieve that success story. The city informed the Madison Public Market Foundation in September that the federal grant application would not continue. According to Alder Syed Abbas, representing the 12th district where the project is planned, a $1.8 million increase in construction costs meant the project was no longer “shovel-ready,” and that the grant included a clause that required all other financing gaps to be filled before the grant could be given.

Instead of coming back to the foundation with the challenge, the mayor’s office said the application was pulled, essentially turning the $1.8 million shortfall into a whopping $5.2 million gap, a chasm that has soured the stakeholders of the project. “From a process standpoint, it’s a public project and these decisions should not happen behind closed doors,” says Abbas. “It should be transparent.”

Trey Sprinkman, a member of the Madison Public Market Advisory Council, says it’s frustrating when you look at the diversity numbers for the vendors and the opportunities that would be lost. “So you have the city of Madison that says, ‘We want diversity, and we want inclusion,’ and then we bring them this great project and they just can’t seem to get themselves out of their own way.”

Abbas says there’s one more opportunity to enable the project to move forward, and that’s when the Common Council holds budget debates from Nov. 15–17. Abbas plans to put forth an amendment to make sure the public market moves forward, or at least have that discussion on the table.

And what if the budget amendment doesn’t pass? Abbas has very little confidence in the project moving forward, even if the plan is to make up the funding with private donors. “Donors are not going to give when they realize the city is not backing the project.” Concerns of rising construction costs also complicate the path to financing. “Next year, instead of $5.2 million, you might end up with $6 million, and $6.5 million the year after that,” Abbas explains, “Now is the time to do this.”

What other options are there for a happy ending to this story? According to Abbas, the budget amendment is how it’s going to happen, “unless some federal Inflation Reduction Act money magically appears, and we get $5 million.” Otherwise, the city needs to vote by way of amending the budget to keep the Madison Public Market.

Sprinkman hopes it’s an opportunity Madison doesn’t lose. “It’s obvious that people want a 365-day market and we all can appreciate how much something like this will bring to our city.”

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