Playing It Cooley

Tim Cooley is developing a metric that Madisonians should not ignore: at least 45% of the properties on the city's tax roll are exempt from property taxes, and that excludes swatches along the Beltline and Interstate that have yet to be factored in.

That's a concern in a city where economic development has become a body contact sport. It's also something to think about when trying to compete and maintain the level of service that residents and businesses have come to expect. As Cooley notes, maintaining services requires increasing the asset base and/or the tax levy, not an easy trick when part of the asset base — home values — is not exactly skyrocketing, and taxes already are high compared to other areas. "I'm still trying to figure out how this will play out," said Cooley, director of the city's economic development division.

Some in the business community wonder how Cooley's tenure will play out. He's halfway through a two-year probationary period on his five-year contract, and he's somewhat bemused when this columnist tells him the perception in the business community is that he and fellow economic development evangelist Michael Gay are so frustrated by recent development setbacks that they are buffing up their resumes. "Not at all," he assures, noting that virtually every community has challenging processes.

In conservative Orange County, California, where Cooley served as CEO of a regional economic competitiveness think-tank and as executive VP for strategic initiatives at the Orange County Business Council, he said it took three elections for voters to pass a half cent sales tax that funds a successful Regional Transit Authority — and that was after officials agreed to emphasize roads.

Orange County, a 32-city metroplex south of Los Angeles, has a population density second only to San Francisco. Its cities are financed by the sales tax; in Madison, 70% of the city's revenue comes from the property tax.

There are similarities, such as a highly educated workforce and major research universities (UC-Irvine and UW-Madison). The latter is definitely something worth leveraging, especially when the job multiplier for biotech is 2.4 and the multiplier for retail is 1.2, which is not double but actually seven times greater.

Cooley wants to leverage Madison's existing strengths and supporting industries by developing facilities equipped with advanced prototyping machines, CAD software, and other capital equipment. That would help local companies, engineers, and entrepreneurs design, test, and prove their ideas. "This can spur new products and applications, and lead to the creation of new businesses and jobs that build on the region's strengths in innovation and manufacturing," he stated.

Sounds like an ideal role for the East Washington Avenue corridor, assuming folks on the isthmus don't mind demonstrating their progressive bonafides with a little — ahem — progress. Cooley does find the influence vested in Madison's many neighborhoods a little unusual — input, fine, but veto power or interminable delays? — but his main point is that he was dealing with an expansive greenfield in Orange County, as opposed to urban infill here.

"It's a lot easier when you've got a palette that's empty, than it is when you must have the discipline to paint between the lines," he said. "The pure density and critical mass of Orange County, with over three million people, allows you to do things more efficiently. But the potential for the Madison area is exciting to be part of. Madison is at the center, the hub, of an innovative region. The possibilities are endless when we align vision and focus."

Cooley might advocate for business, but he makes clear that his constituency is the entire city — a city that has to be aware of its competitive position relative to its suburban neighbors.

"The trend has been for families with higher median incomes to move into those areas, and to see what that means to retail, services, and eventually to larger businesses following," he noted. "Without fiscal sustainability, we can't remain competitive, provide the services we want, or the types of jobs and quality of life we want. When you boil it down, it's what enables standard of living, jobs, and environmental sustainability. It's as simple as that."

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