Epic Epic

In a generation or two when a new history is written of  Madison and Dane County, I’m certain  that Epic Systems,  the cutting-edge medical software company,  will be prominently featured. The local start-up that grew into a global player will be cited not just  for its huge role as a job creator, but for how the building of its world-class campus in Verona rather than Madison changed the development of  Dane County  in the 21st century.

I’ve periodically written about Epic since 2002 and have found it to be an utterly fascinating operation — it’s easily the closest thing that Dane County has to a Google or Microsoft.

I mention this because my recent story on the Madison mayoral election featured an online-only sidebar  in which incumbent Dave Cieslewicz and challenger Paul Soglin recounted their biggest regrets in public life.  Soglin’s answer is noteworthy for shedding  new light on how Madison lost Epic to a cornfield site. That was one of the reasons he cited in regretting his decision to resign from the mayor’s office in 1997.

“A lot of things would be different” had he remained mayor, he told Rotarians. “Epic Systems would be in the city of Madison. Overture would not have become as difficult a challenge for our community.”

Soglin, who left the mayor’s office [after running]  unsuccessfully for Congress, was succeeded by Sue Bauman, who handled the Frautschi family gift of the Overture Center and also the city’s unsuccessful effort to keep fast-growing Epic in the city. He later worked for Epic for nearly five years, and says Madison developer George Gialamas tried to find annexable parcels large enough to keep the medical software company in Madison.

“But George was in the same boat with Epic,” Soglin relates. “Nobody [in city government] was returning his calls.”

Soglin estimates that Epic has spent about $700 million on its Verona campus. “It will easily go over $1 billion.”

Had the software leader built on land annexed by Madison, the state-of-the art campus would be much closer to the urban core today, he says. Housing and transportation patterns would be far more energy efficient. “And the other private investment that’s pending out in Verona would be in Madison.”

You can read the full sidebar here.

For my 2002 story on how Epic wound up in Verona, please go here. You’ll see that back then the campus was valued at only $45  million.

Here’s another story from 2002 that describes how real estate speculators cashed in when they sold Epic the land for its new campus.

This cover  story from 2008 exampled Epic as an example of “green sprawl”.

Here is a timeline up to 2008 that details Epic’s growth over the years.

This column from 2010 details how strikingly ignorant city leaders were when they lost Epic to Verona.

Has Madison gotten smarter in subsequent years? I’d like to think so, but I’m not entirely confident.

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5 Comments on “Epic Epic”

  1. Laskin Says:

    Never quite understood how they managed to reject a major employer that created good goods for college grads and helped fill many, many hotel rooms thanks to
    frequent conferences workshops for old and new users. Yet big boxes, which offered mediocre pay, acted as category killers in local retail, made little attempt to help ameliorate traffic problems, etc., had little difficulty breaking ground during the period discussed.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I really enjoyed reading these articles. They are all well written and informative.

  3. meisen Says:

    For sure, the city’s handling of Epic was botched in multiple ways. Commenter Tom Laskin wrote on the urban sprawl concerns back in 2006. Punch in the following URL to read his story:

    http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=22959

  4. George Hesselberg Says:

    I am doubtful Madison could have ended up with Epic. Even in spring 2001, Epic executives said, publicly and without equivocation that Madison did not have the type of space they were looking for. And that was almost immediately after plunking down $10 million-plus to expand space on Tokay. I find this rewriting of history to be depressing, especially since the rewriting is done for political benefit. Marc suggests the city did nothing. Paul, with the wisdom of Ditka on Monday, claims he coulda been the champ if only the receiver hadn’t dropped his perfect pass. Really? Nothing? Really, Epic makes it pretty much common knowledge the city doesn’t have the chops for it and Paul ten years later says he could have annexed Sun Prairie for it? I don’t know either way, I have no dog in this hunt, but in discussions such as this, I would like to see some facts instead of convenient memories.

    • meisen Says:

      George, I detailed Epic’s search for land in my 2002 story. Here is an extended chunk. Note that Mark Bugher, head of the UW Research Park, says that Madison probably could have retained Epic.

      =====================================
      Excerpt:

      It’s not difficult to imagine a whole new vortex of growth being generated by Epic in the next decade in the greater Verona community. It’s also not hard to imagine how it could drain life from the metropolitan core, namely Madison.

      Whether Madison ever had a real chance to keep Epic is open to question. Interviews with city officials and a review of correspondence show that the city worked hard to keep the software vendor in town, but in the end Mayor Sue Bauman and the Board of Estimates concluded that they could go only so far in offering land and a subsidy for Epic to stick around.

      The city tried to interest Epic in a northeast site near the airport, but most of Epic’s employees live on the southwest side. Last August, the city formally proposed a site off Mineral Point Road on South Point Road in a new industrial park, but it wasn’t enough.

      “We as a city did not have the amount of land they were looking for,” says Bauman, who like her staff was uneasy about turning over an entire commercial park to one tenant. “In some ways it flies in the face of what an urban setting is,” she says.

      Other Madison players were also making a pitch. [Mark] Bugher wanted to put Epic in a new university research park on the west side. George Gialamas, whose Old Sauk Trails was the first big office park in town, was trying to find Epic a site as well.

      “There just wasn’t enough land for them,” says Gialamas. “There’s a shortage of good parcels to develop in Madison. This has been a problem for quite a while now. I hope [Epic’s departure] is a kick in the pants to get the city thinking about annexing large parcels of land.”

      Perhaps the most intriguing idea came early on. It was for Epic to stay in place, to build in the park behind its headquarters and buy and redevelop nearby Westgate Mall for its corporate purposes. Talk about a novel urban infill project! But the city wouldn’t bite.

      “What I heard from the Epic people is that if they had gotten city assistance to purchase Westgate Mall and that rather underutilized park behind them, they probably would have stayed,” says Bugher. “I don’t want to be critical of the mayor, because there are other angles, other issues.”

      There were: Giving Epic exclusive rights to the park was unacceptable, says Bauman. Supv. [Brett] Hulsey, though, thinks the infill idea should have been pursued: “When you have a struggling mall like Westgate with a big parking lot, that’s a classic redevelopment opportunity. We’ve got to make it easier for folks to redevelop there as opposed to pushing them out to Verona.”

      Whatever the merits of the Westgate park option, Epic soon began to look outward for a new space — a big, big site of the sort that we don’t see around Dane County. A minimum of 160 acres.


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