Why downtowns need constant nurturing

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Susan Schmitz will be departing soon, but only as president of Downtown Madison Inc. After 20 years, she is stepping down at year’s end, but not before leaving not-so-subtle reminders about why downtowns matter.

Speaking at the recent IB Expo and Conference, she notes that for the first time in our history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. This reality of a “citified” future should not set off alarm bells. Any area with people, events, and interaction has plenty of potential, even if it only represents 1% of the city’s assessable land.

There have been thousands of new rental-owner occupied units built in the last 20 years, and they continue to be full. The rental market likes to see the vacancy rate at around 5% and it’s finally reaching that level. The same with office space vacancy, which has been very high and now is close to 7%. “Our challenge now is building workforce housing so that the many new employees that are needed downtown can afford to live near their place of work,” Schmitz notes. “Affordable housing is an issue most cities are working on.”

Many jobs downtown exist in the service industry, which in 20 years has grown from 12% of downtown businesses to 35%. Contrary to popular opinion, restaurants and bars are up 2% in that time, but retail has changed the most.

Even while operating with the geographical constraint of an isthmus with traffic and parking challenges, tourism has picked up immensely thanks to visionary investments — Monona Terrace, the Overture Center, the Edgewater renovation, the Madison Children’s Museum, and Union South. That has led to the Ironman, the ever-expanding Forward Fest, and much more. The forthcoming addition of the Sylvee music venue promises to bring greater variety.

Schmitz acknowledges that downtown’s unfinished business is becoming as diverse as other sections of Madison. Regional solutions to transportation issues would help. The BCycle bike share accommodates a fast-growing mode of transportation, but there is the lingering frustration of not being able to move economically disadvantaged people to jobs. Schmitz supports proposed BRTs, or bus rapid-transit systems, as an upgrade to conventional mass transit. “These systems work, and they work really well,” she states. “We’re on an isthmus and we don’t have a lot of room.”

The only constant will be change. “Downtowns,” she reminds us, “need constant nurturing.”

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