Cooley: No word on long-term status.

Joseph Vanden Plas, Senior IB Editor, is our strongest voice on the political front, and he writes on a wide variety of subjects, most of which are directly pertinent to economic development circles. He holds public officials accountable, and explains the larger playing field when a special interest group is involved.

Tim Cooley must love his native Madison a great deal. Not only did he leave warm and sunny Orange County California to come back to our winter wonderland, he agreed to come back for a two-year probationary period in which his boss, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, can give him sudden notice that his services are no longer needed.

The probationary period ends on Feb. 15, 2011. Until that date, Cooley serves at the pleasure of a Mayor who is gearing up for re-election, and he does not know which way the mayor is leaning. One wonders whether Cooley’s retention as director of the city’s Economic Development Division will be a campaign issue because the Feb. 15 deadline falls on the day of the spring primary election.

Interesting timing, indeed.

To those of us who would like to see the city maintain a more aggressive posture on economic development, Cooley’s retention is a no-brainer. The decision is Cieslewicz’s alone to make, but anyone who advocates for greater business activity is bound to make some enemies in this town, and I hope Mayor Cieslewicz has Cooley’s back. It’s one of the better appointments the Mayor has made, and he should brag about it more.

Based on his effort to improve Madison’s maddening approval process for real estate developments, not to mention his advocacy for greater investment in general, Cooley is a keeper. Any person or group that would try to make sense of this development approval process is worthy of a Nobel Prize, let alone continued employment.

Time will tell, of course, whether the Development Process Improvement Initiative, which is going to the Common Council this week, will even be enacted, let alone work. But Cooley has a few bullet points in his chamber that should make even the most recalcitrant alder take notice. The most important is the fact that about 50% of the real estate in the city of Madison is tax-exempt, which means the city has to make the most of the rest. If you want to accomplish progressive things, you need some progressive cash in the form of tax revenue, and that’s a very good reason why elected officials and others shouldn’t make development a pain in the isthmus — or anywhere else for that matter.

The Development Process Improvement Initiative is the work of Cooley and others on the city’s Economic Development Committee and associated staff. The process, as the EDC has tried to define and structure it, aims to reduce the time that’s necessary for more complex projects to move through the system, while recognizing that there is a certain standard and involvement that stakeholders deserve. In addition, things would move along in a parallel process instead of sequential process wherever possible, and to help maintain some semblance of uniformity and predictability, it also addresses the possibility of mission creep for the commissions involved.

In explaining how it would make for a more efficient process, Cooley was matter-of-fact. "This defines proportionate voices within the development process, and assigns to each of them what role they should play," he said, "with a plan to move things along in a much more efficient manner, which will reduce [development] costs and hopefully encourage creativity and increase investment in the city."

So the influential neighborhood groups that have gummed up, for example, the Edgewater Hotel expansion, are treated the same as any other stakeholder? "The neighborhood groups are an input into the process," Cooley explained. "They are not the deciding factor in the process. Land-use authority, by state statute, has been given to the municipality."

The proposed improvements are, in a very real sense, a direct response to the developer who stood up during one hearing and said: "Why should I come to Madison?"

The answer is, of course, because the city realized it had a problem and is taking steps to address it.

In addition to Cooley, kudos also go to other members of the EDC: Douglas Nelson, M&I Bank; Joe Boucher, Neider & Boucher; Council President Mark Clear; alders Chris Schmidt and Joseph Clausius; Edward Clarke of Madison College; Peng Her of the East Isthmus Planning Council; realtor Gabriel Sanchez; Victoria Selkowe from the office of State Rep. Cory Mason; Julia Stone of Bizwerks; Sandra Torkildson of A Rooms of One’s Own Bookstore; Matthew Younkle of Y Innovation; Alfred Zimmerman of Danisco U.S.A.

Others who should take a bow are members of the Development Process Improvement Initiative staff. They are Brad Murphy, director of the city’s Planning Division; Matt Mikolajewski, manager of the city’s Office of Business Resources; Peggy Yessa, an analyst for the city’s Office of Business Resources; and Mark Olinger, director of the city’s Department of Planning, Community, and Economic Development.

They deserve our thanks for what obviously was a good deal of hard work, but it also would be nice if the city’s top economic development official would get a vote-of-confidence, and not just a perfunctory one, from the Mayor.

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