Madison is suffering tough losses in its battle to attract private development.
“Our approvals process has to be streamlined,” said Tim Cooley, the city’s economic development director. “It just has to. We don’t have a choice anymore.”
The Common Council’s decision Wednesday to kill a $93 million redevelopment of the Edgewater Hotel was compounded a few hours later when city officials learned Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. will abandon its 16-screen movie theater proposal for Madison’s east side and instead build in Sun Prairie.
“It’s a real double-whammy,” said Madison Alderman Joe Clausius, who represents the district where Marcus would have built the theater. “It’s sure been frustrating the last couple of days.”
Clausius blamed the city’s approval process for the Marcus decision, arguing Urban Design Commission parking requirements that could have forced construction of a parking ramp might have pushed Marcus away.
But Marcus spokesman Carlo Petrick said economics, not city requirements, led to the switch to Sun Prairie.
“Sun Prairie has a more advantageous site to develop in,” Petrick said. “The Madison project would have been part of a larger development that included other commercial buildings.”
Marcus originally planned to develop a 26-acre site in Madison with the theater as an anchor for other retail and restaurant spaces. Although Marcus received preliminary approval from the city’s Urban Design Commission, Plan Commission and Common Council, the company never developed a detailed site plan for the project.
In August, Marcus acquired an option to buy 16 acres in Sun Prairie’s Prairie Lakes retail area. Neil Stechschulte, the city’s economic development director, said Prairie Lake has a new Target shopping center, so there was less pressure for Marcus to attract new development.
“They could start as early as spring,” he said. “All they have to do now is get their building permit, and as soon as they pull the trigger, I imagine stores and restaurants would be putting forward proposals within the next 60 days.”
Madison needs that kind of development, Cooley said. But local residents and neighborhood groups resist change and redevelopment, he said.
“We are also market-driven,” Cooley said. “We can make demands about certain things, but the truth is right now it’s a buyer’s market and businesses are going to go where it makes sense. But there are neighborhoods right now that need redevelopment and the people there say, ‘We don’t mind it the way it is.’
“How do you get around that perspective for an immediate, short-term benefit?”
The answer, Cooley said, is to remove the hurdles that push businesses away. That includes loosening development requirements and deciding how much influence neighborhoods have over the process.
“I heard council members during the Edgewater debate say, ‘Well, I got e-mails from 50 people in my district that oppose the project, so my district is opposed,’” he said. “No it’s not. Fifty people are.”
The 26 acres Marcus targeted in Madison are valuable and developable, Clausius said. The city, he said, cannot afford to let interested companies slip away.
“We have way too many restrictions,” he said. “This should be a wake-up call to our economic development team and the Urban Design Commission.”