Madison’s Public Market Might Have Checked Out

Madison is building or will soon begin construction on a lot of stuff: major projects at the public high schools, bus rapid transit, a new men’s shelter, a jail consolidation, and more. 

And all that building is happening at a time when construction costs are increasing rapidly. It’s probably time to make some hard choices and one of them, unfortunately, is about the long-anticipated public market. We need to seriously consider ending or mothballing that project. 

Some background. The city of Madison, Dane County and the Madison Metropolitan School District all budget separately. But in Madison, of course, they all hit up the same taxpayers. So even though the school construction projects are in the MMSD budget, BRT is with the city, the jail is budgeted for by Dane County, and the men’s shelter is a joint project of the city and county, we really need to think about them as a set of projects all paid for by pretty much the same people. And those taxpayers are being asked to pay for a lot of worthy projects. 

The public market is certainly worthy but it isn’t a basic need. A lot of cities don’t have public markets but no city goes without schools, jails, public transit facilities, or some accommodation for homeless people. 

An idea whose time has come and probably gone.

Construction was slated to begin on the market in November after 15 years of fits and starts, studies and plans. But then a few weeks ago the city determined that it was ineligible for a $3.5 million federal grant it had counted on. To make matters worse, new construction cost estimates came in $1.7 million higher than previous projections. All told, the project is now over $5 million in the hole and there’s little doubt that the current $20 million price tag will continue to rise. 

The same inflationary pressures are hitting BRT, the shelter and the jail. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, in her just-released 2023 capital budget proposal (which sets a record for spending), needed to add another $10 million to BRT and $3 million more for the shelter. Dane County has also added more funds for its share of the shelter while the county board struggles over how to meet a growing gap in the jail consolidation budget. 

If Madison had been able to take less than a decade and a half to make up its mind about where to put the market and the details of its operation it could have gotten built in a less inflationary period. But we’re Madison. We like to take our time. And so here we are. 

One thing we might consider — and this is just me thinking out loud — is to take part of the already approved funding and invest in community kitchens in key neighborhoods. These could be places where neighbors could access healthy, local foods and learn how to create healthy meals and eating habits for their families. This would address part of what the vision for the market was about, but it could be even more effective at a lower cost because it would take the healthy local foods movement to the neighborhoods that are most in need. 

It’s always hard to give up on a project that has already absorbed so much cost as well as the time, commitment and passion of so many people. In fact, the whole project got started in my first term as mayor and I was an enthusiastic supporter

I still am. But this is a time of hard choices. We need to make distinctions between what we need to do and what we’d like to do. I’m afraid the public market falls into the latter category. 

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “Madison’s Public Market Might Have Checked Out

  1. The public market has always been a good idea that just costs too much to be worth it. Put the shelter at First Street and if there is going to be a public market, put it on the Brayton Lot to help revive a sleepy corner of downtown with a ton of potential.

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    1. Yep. The Brayton Lot was the first choice of the first consultant’s study but the mayor back then (I think it was 2006 maybe) wanted it where Judge Doyle Square is now. What an idiot that guy was.

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      1. The only idiot I remember is the guy that killed the train, which derailed (sorry) the downtown station and with it everything that was going to be at JDS.

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  2. Yep the market has been very thoroughly Madison’d. Milwaukee just opened one after only three or four years of planning.

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