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Editorial: State selloff in downtown Madison makes sense

The State Natural Resources Building in Madison. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin DOA)

Roughly half of downtown Madison’s office workers go into the office three to five days a week, based on parking, key fob and cellphone data.

The other half has learned to do their jobs mostly from home or in the field, thanks to fast internet, videoconferencing apps and more employers allowing if not encouraging remote work in the wake of the pandemic.

Fear of the virus forced many employers’ hands. But now that the health crisis is largely over, lots of bosses are sticking with hybrid schedules for certain employees to improve efficiency and help fill jobs. With a tight labor market, allowing workers to avoid a long commute and expensive parking downtown can help attract talent.

State government is no different. The changing world of work has created a glut of state office space in prime locations just blocks from the state Capitol.

That’s why Gov. Tony Evers is wisely proposing the sale of three large office buildings downtown: the State Natural Resources Building (also known as GEF 2) at 101 S. Webster St., the neighboring State Education Building (GEF 3), and the Gothic-styled and historic State Office Building at 1 W. Wilson St., overlooking Lake Monona.

Selling the three sites would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, according to the Democratic governor’s administration. It also would increase the city’s tax base and energize downtown Madison with space for more residents, private development and business.

The Republican-run Legislature should get behind Evers’ smart idea to reduce the state’s footprint in Madison by more than a quarter. So far, lawmakers sound open to the idea, which is good. The proposal could result in some state jobs being consolidated on the West Side and others being based elsewhere in the state.

That’s OK, because Madison’s economy isn’t dominated by state government and UW-Madison the way it used to be. Technology companies such as Epic Systems and Exact Sciences employ thousands of young professionals, many of whom live downtown.

Lawmakers have ordered an audit of work-from-home arrangements for state employees, which is reasonable. Yet fear of lost production and poor customer service if employees aren’t chained to their desks seems outdated.

Republicans often say state government should run more like a business. Evers’ idea would do just that, mirroring a trend that much of the private sector has embraced.

The state’s historic Wilson Street property could become a hotel, condo or apartment building with hundreds of units. GEF 2 and GEF 3 could be torn down to create enormous potential for urban renewal.

Our editorial board has previously called for tearing down GEF 1, which is one of downtown’s ugliest and most outdated buildings. But with plans for a museum on that site falling through, the Evers administration insists it is still needed for state workers who need to be close to the Capitol.

State Street, Madison’s premier shopping and entertainment district, took a big hit from the pandemic as well as protests against police that led to vandalism and looting in 2020. The State Street area still has dozens of vacant storefronts, especially near the Capitol. It would benefit from more residents and foot traffic, which the governor’s proposal would encourage.

The demand for housing downtown is evident by the nine or 10 large cranes that continue to reshape the city’s skyline.

Jason Ilstrup, executive director of Downtown Madison Inc., a booster group for local business, calls the sale of the state buildings “a profound opportunity to continue the momentum Downtown” for growth and vitality.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway supports the sale, which could complement the city’s efforts to remake the Lake Monona waterfront.

Lawmakers should give this exciting plan a chance at success, given its substantial benefits to state taxpayers and the economy.

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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