Southern exposure: The Visit South Madison Project is contributing to the neighborhood’s upward climb

Daniel Guerra is optimistic about South Madison. The venerable neighborhood, which has a rich and unique history but has seen its share of economic challenges in recent decades, is not just, in Guerra’s estimation, the melting pot of Madison, but an area with a tremendous amount of room to grow.

That’s why Guerra – who was born in South Madison and whose grandmother lived in the neighborhood for 72 years – is rolling up his sleeves and doing something to promote the area as an economic player.

As project manager for the Visit South Madison Project, Guerra (who is also CEO of Argus Ventures, a Madison-based technologies, Internet marketing, and general consulting business) is working to change the economic perception of South Madison and promote the area’s businesses and events.

“Prior to 2005 and for the last 30 years before that, you saw a flight of capital from South Madison,” said Guerra. “Now we’re at a fundamental point where the [South Metropolitan] Planning Council’s really made this a priority. How do you reintroduce South Madison as a place to grow business? And for those that aren’t necessarily in business, a place to come and visit?”

One answer to that question – and one of the key strategies adopted by Visit South Madison – is to simply show people the way. In other words, make a map.

Based largely on the Downtown Madison Map and Guide, the South Madison map is one of the three main pillars of the Visit South Madison program – the others being the project’s website and its gift card program – and was the starting point for the effort.

“Imagine a marketing piece that’s got all the businesses in South Madison all on one piece of paper,” said Guerra. “If people are looking for opportunities just to see what kind of businesses are there, they’ve got this entire spread, from veterinary clinics to mortgage companies to handymen to education. And so that’s where the value is, showing people something tangible.

“I primarily come from an Internet technology side, and I’m a younger guy, and it’s really easy for people like me to say, ‘That’s got to be online, that’s got to be digital.’ You know, a lot of us forget that being digital is still the minority. It’s becoming the majority, but it’s still the minority. So we took the view that you need to get something in people’s chubby little hands that they can touch, and the map did that.”

Going digital

Of course, in the 21st century, the digital world is not to be ignored, and Visit South Madison also has a significant presence on the Web. One of the key features of is its virtual mall, which allows South Madison businesses to sell their wares and gives customers an easy way to patronize area stores.

“Businesses can put their products online, and internally we have a vetting process,” said Guerra. “We want every customer to have a really good experience, so you can’t just put something on. We have to clear you to put a product on, but we allow every business that opportunity. And we send out a biweekly update to retailers, and we send a weekly update to general users.”

The chief goal is not to get Madisonians and others to purchase items online, however. The focus of the Visit South Madison project is to get people – and dollars – circulating in the area. To Guerra, that’s a goal that’s well within reach.

“South Madison has got lots of hidden treasures, it’s a tourist destination,” said Guerra. “For example, the UW Space Place. A lot of people don’t realize that there are people who come just to look at the Space Place from as far away as Minneapolis, six or seven hours, just to come and see it.

“You know, we’re spoiled here in Madison because we’ve got all these luxuries right around the corner. And we’ve got the zoo, we’ve got the Arboretum, we’ve got bike paths, we’ve got the coliseum, just a ton of reasons to come to South Madison. And so you look at all the businesses there, you look at South Madison first off, and ethnically, it is the melting pot of Madison, and you think about the number of people that are minorities in South Madison who are trying to get a leg up. The best way to get tangible economic development – and this isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff – is by marketing these businesses, having people come to us, and having people spend money.”

According to Guerra, the area is definitely on the upswing, and the Visit South Madison project is just a small part of that trend. In fact, this project is more about promoting the positives that already exist.

“The one negative that’s out there is most people look at South Madison as this place that is poor and that businesses don’t invest in, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Guerra. “You’ve got the city of Madison that’s invested upwards of $10 million, you’ve got Access Community Health that’s going to be investing there, you’ve got the Arbor Gate redevelopment, and further redevelopment on the Beltline. So all this capital is starting to come there, so now is the time to really reintroduce South Madison for what it has. People from the outskirts of Dane County should be coming to Park Street and enjoying the ethnic restaurants.”

Trending up

Of course, while the focus of the Visit South Madison project is all about making South Madison a destination for people in the area, he also sees benefits to establishing a business there.

“South Madison is a part of the city that is trending up, and I say that because, you think about downtown, and frankly for many people, downtown has got a barrier to entry that a lot of smaller and emerging firms can’t meet,” said Guerra. “But if you’re a newer firm, you want to be in an area that is emerging or trending up. So you look at South Madison and the commercial spots around the Villager, and you look at the Arbor Gate investments, and those are exactly the places you want to be – incredibly reasonably priced, and neighborhoods that have consistently developed a newer and better reputation.”

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