The Library DOA (Call 911, because we’re pretty sure there is going to be a whambulance reaction to T. Wall letting off a little steam….)

Request for Proposal (“RFP”): Dysfunctional City (of Madison) seeks eternally optimistic developer to spend a year and a half, along with tens of thousands of dollars and lots of staff and consultant time, to propose a project that won’t happen. Must have a thick skin and be prepared to take on dozens of naysayers as well as be bashed by a slew of Monday morning quarterbacks, know-it-all-but-haven’t-produced-anything types, only to be told “sorry” in the end.

The following is my personal story of my experience with the proposed new Madison Central Library. I am not complaining; but I thought you would be interested to hear what a developer goes through on a project like this.

Over a year and a half ago, the Mayor of Madison asked me if I would get involved in helping to build a new central library for downtown. I took the bait, because I love our community and I also grew up with a family deeply involved in the library business. I truly wanted to help the library put to rest its 1950s civil defense bunker-type building and replace it with a state of the art, modern library that would be the envy of other communities.

Here is my account:
I learned that there’s a group of residents who spend their time attacking anyone who has an idea or wants to improve Madison; they simply don’t want change. Of course, they’ve never contributed by actually creating or producing anything, but in spite of their lack of experience, they view themselves as the experts on every subject and they are relentless in their criticism.

Then there are the business owners who deliberately sabotage other business leaders’ attempts at contributing positively to our community; maybe they’re a competitor or they weren’t asked to be involved in the proposal.

While we did receive overwhelming enthusiastic support from both the public at large and the broader community, ordinary people in the community are busy with their own lives; busy with families and businesses to run, and they don’t have time to spend hours in dozen of meetings over a year to support a particular project, no matter what its benefit to the community. So as a result, in the eyes of the committees and commissions, the “public” becomes the handful of people who have nothing better to do than sit through dozens of meetings for hours on end so they can complain for three minutes about this or that.

(Funny, not one of them ever stepped up to say he or she would help or donate or volunteer to make the project a reality. All they talked about was what they wanted.)

Then there was the competing downtown office building owner who doesn’t want more office buildings built downtown because a new building might compete with his buildings. Talk about desperate; he called the city and bad-mouthed us. Then he called the library people, and then he called a member of the committees, all in an effort to kill the project. Never mind the benefits a new library would provide for our community; I believe he was solely interested his own personal corporate welfare.

Then there was the committee that repeatedly pushed off a decision and whose Chair kept heading off in a new and different direction almost every month. Toward the end, the committee decided to look at renovating the existing building. Never mind that the city went down that path seven years ago and ruled it out; never mind that a renovation option wasn’t even in the RFP; never mind that the developers had already invested money and time, in good faith, in a process that they assumed would be followed and fair.

No, let’s change the rules of the game mid-stream. (I’ll give the Mayor credit on this one; he got the process back on track.)

Then there were the attacks for offering up a donation, especially given that the library surplus committee specifically asked both developers to come up with “contributes” to the project. Who knew that we’d be trashed in the press for trying to be a good corporate citizen?

But I can see now what the problem was — there is a handful of people downtown who don’t want the private sector involved (financially or otherwise) because that might mean other people may have some say in the project. It’s all about keeping others’ opinions out.

Now I know how Jerry Frautschi felt.

In the end, the final coup de grace was the decision by the committee to recommend the higher cost proposal.

A reasonable person might think given the gap in funding between the two proposals that the committee would select the lower-cost proposal; but no, only in Madison would they pick a proposal that costs $8 million more (by the city’s own analysis). In fact, upon reviewing the committee member’s point score sheets, I found that four out of six members gave more or the same points to the higher-cost proposal for the category called “purchase price.” That’s right, the higher priced proposal received more points! (If only I had known; I could have raised our price!)

Then there is the issue of Madison’s publicly stated requirements for mixed-use projects, higher density, and new urbanism type projects downtown. Attention developers: forget all that! The subcommittee selected a proposal for a single-use, freestanding, traditional suburban-style building of lower density. I guess when it comes to the city doing development, it’s okay not to follow the city planning guidelines.

And we wonder why we can’t get much done in this city! Madison truly has a can’t-do attitude. Instead of everyone uniting behind a common cause for the greater good of the community, residents of this town are more interested in killing off anything that they did not come up with. Look at the Central Park — years of work and still no park. The city market — same thing. Monona Terrace only took 80 years to get approved.

Unfortunately, I imagine we’ll be sitting here five years from now and look back on this experience as another sad chapter in Madison’s history of projects tried, but failed.

At least I tried, which is a lot more than the naysayers can say.