Time For Madison To Think Big

Posted October 26, 2016 by meisen
Categories: Development, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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I’ve written  about development in the Madison area since Pluto was a pup. Lots of stories on land-use plans, on the convention center battles, even the siting of the  MATC main campus. Stuff so old you can’t even find them in an online archives.

Those stories provide the background for me arguing in this Isthmus cover story that Madison needs a comprehensive recreational and economic plan for improving access to Lake Monona along John Nolen Drive all the way  from the Blair Street intersection and  Law Park to the South Beltline.

I write:

Today’s tech-fired boom in Dane County, which owes so much to [Judith] Faulkner’s Epic Systems’ breakout business in electronic health records, is the sort of transformative moment that comes once a century for a community. The overriding question: Can Madison make the best of it, including capitalizing on the intersection of Lake Monona with the city?

Not just downtown either [by building a terraced park over John Nolen Drive]. But reimagining a 21st-century John Nolen Drive all the way up to Quann, Olin and Turville parks to the Alliant Energy Center to the South Beltline and to the overlooked neighborhoods of south Madison.

“This is the next big piece,” says Rob Gottschalk, a planner with Vandewalle and Associates who has studied the John Nolen corridor. “The central city has grown and matured to the point we can now start focusing on the corridor.”

Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, gets it. So does Dane County Board chair Sharon Corrigan, her colleague and south-side Supv. Sheila Stubbs, County Clerk Scott McDonell, as well as business leader Susan Schmitz of Downtown Madison Inc.

“It’s a game-changer,” Schmitz says of the recent waterfront connection proposed for Law Park by the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup. “Improved access is on everybody’s list for the downtown.”

Like Gottschalk, Brandon, who served on the advisory board for the Vandewalle study, argues for a comprehensive game plan for the full corridor, including the Alliant Energy Center. “There is tremendous opportunity to create connectivity and economic development,” he says.

Indeed, a forward-thinking strategy for the county-owned 165-acre Alliant campus should be a key community challenge, as he, Corrigan, McDonell and Stubbs all argue. Surrounded by parks and the Goodman Aquatic Center, Alliant is the linchpin of 400 publicly controlled acres in a fragmented and sometimes impoverished part of town.

Pulling it all together in a comprehensive plan could simultaneously enhance lake access and recreational opportunities at Olin and Turville parks, strengthen Dane County’s convention and exhibition business at the Alliant complex and further economic growth along the South Beltline and in struggling south Madison.

All of these goals — celebrating the lakes, creating jobs, fighting poverty — rank high on just about everyone’s list of community goals, Brandon points out.

I freely admit this is an ambitious undertaking that would take decades to achieve. But the planning has to take place now. That’s the rub. Otherwise shortsighted, piecemeal development will go up “and then you’re stuck with it for the next 40 or 50 years,” as Gottschalk told me.

In other words, a great opportunity will be lost.

To read more, please go here.

Talking UW Blues

Posted August 8, 2016 by meisen
Categories: Education


Man, I hate being interviewed. But I talked with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Rob Ferrett about my UW System stories. You can listen to the interview here.

Stronger UWM=Stronger Wisconsin

Posted July 11, 2016 by meisen
Categories: Development, Education, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Sometimes one story leads to another. My Isthmus piece on the critical role of the UW System in rebuilding the Wisconsin economy got me thinking about the importance of urban universities in anchoring  prosperous metropolitan regions.

I make the case in this Journal Sentinel opinion column that a bigger state  investment in UW-Milwaukee would be a key ingredient in revitalizing Milwaukee.

A strong Milwaukee is good for us all — Madison, the Milwaukee suburbs and the state as a whole. “You can’t move the state forward economically unless Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin are leading the pack,” as former commerce secretary Bill McCoshen puts it.

Indeed, most prosperous metro regions — the Austins and Seattles of the nation — are usually enriched by strong central cities, research shows. The weakest — the Clevelands and Milwaukees — are hobbled by weak central cities.

Look no farther than Minnesota, which has soared ahead of the Badger state. Our median income of $52,622 a year is almost $9,000 less than our sister state’s. The contrasting impact of Minnapolis-St.Paul’s muscular economy to Milwaukee’s lingering Rust Belt decline is the key reason for the prosperity gap.


To read more on the history and important role of urban universities, please go here.

What Would Tommy do?

Posted April 19, 2016 by meisen
Categories: Development, Education, Politics, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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Last fall I had lunch with a friend who covered Wisconsin’s Capitol when Tommy Thompson ran the state for 14 years. By the end, he said, Thompson had tired of the constant grind. Only when Thompson talked about his plans for the UW System did the old fire return
That stuck with me. A few years earlier I wrote a Capitol piece for Milwaukee Magazine that discussed the politically surprising partnership between the Republican governor and  liberal-minded UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala in launching a huge and transformative building program for the university.
Times have changed. Today the Capitol and the university see one another as an unreliable partner. I write:

The disharmony stems in part from the tensions of a generally liberal-minded university working with a decidedly conservative state government. Further exacerbating the relationship is the obliqueness of UW System bookkeeping and the Republican belief it hid a huge slush fund. (This became a key factor in the GOP-enforced tuition freeze and UW budget cut.) Add in the troubling geographic complaints that the UW System is Madison-centric and shorts the rest of the state and Milwaukee in particular.

UW advocates, in turn, are reeling from the $250 million UW budget cut, the four-year tuition freeze, the stripping of tenure protection from state statutes and Gov. Scott Walker’s surprise attempt in an earlier budget to bowdlerize the “Wisconsin Idea” that guides the UW’s mission to the citizenry.

All this makes for an unpleasant stew of missed signals, aggravation, suspicion and wheel spinning. Not to mention a nagging sense that the state as a whole is grievously hurt by the failure of the pols and profs to make nice.

Once upon a time it was different. Governors, Democrat and Republican alike, would tap top UW talent to serve and help run their administrations. Over the past 40-plus years this included Govs. Patrick Lucey, Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson deploying such UW luminaries as David Adamany, Walter Dickey, Ralph Andreano, Charles Cicchetti, Steve Born, Kenneth Lindner and Donald Percy in government service.

But under Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and now Scott Walker, a Republican, a new dynamic has emerged — governors ignoring the UW’s best and brightest to rely almost exclusively on their loyalists and apparatchiks to set policy and run the huge army of state employees.

More than one UW person I talked to spoke approvingly (if not longingly) of the Tommy Thompson era. That’s when an activist Republican governor with Hamiltonian ambitions for a greater Wisconsin found common ground with the university to unleash a major expansion of the UW System, including several billion dollars in campus construction.

How did he do it?

“I realized the university had to be my ally,” Thompson, 74, explains matter-of-factly, as if he were addressing a Poli Sci 101 class. “I had to make the university much more responsive to the needs of Wisconsin. And I said to myself I have to do it in a collegial way, because I don’t have the political power to do it alone. I’ve got to make sure the university understands I’m going to be its best friend. And for that friendship — quid pro quo — they’re going to help me build every part of this state.”

You don’t hear talk like that anymore in Wisconsin. An obvious question calls out: What would Tommy do to improve the sad state of campus-Capitol relations?

To find the answer, please go here.

There are two sidebars with the story. (The whole package is about 5,000 words.) The first reports how Thompson, a life-long UW booster, will be honored at UW-Madison’s spring commencement. The second details how the state’s failing efforts at economic development ignore the recommendations of UW researchers.


Favorite Concerts of 2015

Posted January 2, 2016 by meisen
Categories: Music

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For  ten years, I’ve been writing an online roundup of my favorite concerts for Isthmus, the Madison weekly where I wrote and edited for many years. I’m not a critic, but I see a ton of live music.

My tastes are far-ranging. Opera to op’ry. Free jazz to dub. Classical to indigenous. Occasional rock. Blues if I can find it.

Last week, while traveling, I saw the Paris Opera’s widely panned restaging of Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.” This was a cheeky new twist to  the age-old tale of a desperate man making a deal with the devil. Director Alvis Hermanis brashly uprooted the  opera from its traditional Middle Ages setting and placed it in the near future on the eve of a Mars space mission. This had audiences booing and critics howling.

I loved it. But 2015 was that kind of a musical year for me. The brasher the better. As I wrote in Isthmus:

I was looking for disruptive and challenging music. Some of this, frankly, was a reaction to our politically pissant times. They make you want to holler, to quote Marvin Gaye. If I were still writing about politics, I’d be tempted to raise my hand at press conferences and politely ask our leaders: “Are you fucking serious?”

Dark edgy music, at least on some nights, was where my head was at. It didn’t help I was playing Ben Sidran’s fine new album Blue Camus nonstop on my car’s beat-up CD player. Displaying a jazzman’s innate outsider sensibility, Sidran nailed the gestalt of certain precincts in Madison (and elsewhere) — a profound weariness and frustration with politics.

If they would just back it up or pack it up. Lead, follow or get out of the way,” he exclaims in “Wake Me When It’s Over,” before delivering his homily. “Because sometimes good things can happen to bad people. But, man, baaad people happen to good people every day.”

To read more (some 5,000 words worth), please go here.

My older roundups are here: 201420132012201120102009200820072006.

Abandoned Mine Ahead

Posted November 30, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Development, Politics, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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A few weeks ago, The Financial Times reported that  the price of steel rebar (the reinforcing rods used in concrete construction) had plunged to a record low on the Shanghai futures market. And the price of iron ore had dropped as well, meaning that mining companies would likely cut production.

That was bad news for the Wisconsin economy. The Badger State has a substantial — but struggling — mining equipment industry in the Milwaukee area.

More to the point, the cooling of the Chinese economy is a major reason why the pipe dream of a revived iron ore mining in northern Wisconsin quickly burst. I examine the flawed thinking of the mine promoters  — notably Gov. Scott Walker and the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce–in a piece for Isthmus.


Thomas Power, 75, an emeritus natural resources economist at the University of Montana, has studied mining for almost 50 years. He chuckled and said “certainly not” when I asked him in a phone interview if mining iron ore in northern Wisconsin was a good bet for producing jobs and wealth.

“Mining in the United States hasn’t been a growth center or a source of regional prosperity for at least a half century,” he says. “Just look across the country. When was the last time the Iron Range in Minnesota was prosperous? Or the last time when Butte, Montana, was prosperous? Or the Appalachian coal fields? Or the Ozark lead fields? Or the Arizona copper towns?”

The only contemporary success story he could cite was gold mining in the middle of nowhere Nevada, where the workers commute to work.

Reality is that mining operates on a recurring boom-and-bust cycle, he notes, and the bounce-backs are inevitably fueled, in part, by technological advances that reduce the workforce.

Mining jobs, as a result, has been greatly reduced. “It’s like agriculture,” Power says. “The rural Great Plains is losing people. Its not because we’re producing less and less wheat. It’s because we need almost no people to produce the wheat. It’s the same with mining.”

“It’s hard to imagine how some sort of sustainable prosperity can be built around an industry of that sort,” he adds. “That’s not badmouthing mining. That’s just the facts of the matter.”

To read more, please go here.

Allen Toussaint, RIP

Posted November 11, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Music


The death of Allen Toussaint at age 77 is a profound loss for American culture.

I saw him perform in 2011, and it was my favorite concert of the year.

Here’s what I said in a year-end music piece for Isthmus’ website:

1. Old Man River

Allen Toussaint, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Jan. 14

The crowd broke into “Happy Birthday” when Toussaint announced he had turned 73. Like a handful of other living legends I’ve seen (Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard, Alberta Hunter at the Cookery, Stephane Grappelli at the old Capitol Theater), Toussaint came joyously alive on stage, the deprecations of age seemingly banished by the magic of his art. This New Orleans icon was surrounded by an all-star band, featuring traditionalist trumpeter Nicholas Payton and hipster sax player/clarinetist Don Byron performing the wondrous songs on the Joe Henry-produced Bright Mississippi. This was an elegiac performance ranging from Louis Armstrong’s foundational “West End Blues,” to Toussaint’s own syncopated hit “Night People.” A sly and encyclopedic pianist (he mixed in a few classical licks on a long solo), Toussaint was the embodiment of American musical history. I left the show elated, knowing how lucky I was. When Toussaint passes, an era will pass with him. That’s why finally seeing Allen Toussaint was my most memorable concert of the year.

– See more at: http://www.isthmus.com/music/my-favorite-concerts-of-2011-mahler-and-mikrokolektyw-sinatra-and-sacred-steel/#sthash.ZbuZsaTz.dpuf



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