In the eyes of the community’s business leaders, Madison is at a critical moment.
To repeat a theme heard often during the city’s most recent mayoral election: It’s a great place to live for a lot of people, and it’s getting better — just not for everyone.
As Dane County continues to grow, community leaders, businesses, elected officials and activists have an opportunity and a responsibility to right the ship where its gone adrift while capitalizing on the momentum that has landed Madison atop a slew of national “best of” rankings.
During a recent meeting with the Cap Times editorial board, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon rattled off a list of recent reports praising the city: Madison is “a new mecca for millennials.” Madison has “the highest concentration of millennial talent in the country.” Madison is one of the “best cities for recent college grads.” Madison is the city “where women are most successful.” Madison is the “best city to raise a family.” Madison is the best large metro in which to grow old. Madison is the third-best place to live in the United States.
“There’s some great headlines. There’s a great trendline that goes along with that. But there’s work to be done,” Brandon told us.
Wisconsin is the worst state in the nation for black infant mortality. In Dane County, academic disparities between black and white children consistently rank among the worst in the nation. Black men and women in Dane County — and in all of Wisconsin — are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. Dane County has the largest disparity in incarceration of black vs. white inmates among Wisconsin counties with large black populations. People of color in Madison are significantly more likely than white individuals to experience homelessness. In Madison, the African American median income is 45 percent of median white income, and the median Latino income is 60 percent of the median white income.
Those inequities — those that can be measured and those that cannot — are part of the equation as the Chamber issues its slate of policy recommendations at the local, state and federal levels for the next two years.
The Chamber’s agenda is a reminder that supporting business doesn’t have to mean eschewing progressive policies.
“Equity and inclusion and access and social mobility are now baked into everything that we talk about,” Brandon said.
For those of us (read: me) who aren’t used to the lingo of economic development and community marketing initiatives, the packaging on the NEXUS agenda at first feels a little gimmicky. The Chamber says it’s time for “a new operating system” that “aligns and opens individual and institutional networks,” and “access, inclusion and mobility are intentionally hardcoded.”
Once you move past the brochure-speak, there’s an ambitious set of goals underneath. And those goals are informed not just by Madison’s history, but by asking cities like Austin, Texas what they would have done differently when they found themselves on the brink of the growth Madison is poised to reach.
One recommendation from Austin was incorporating transit development from the start. As Cap Times reporter Abigail Becker recently explained, Madison’s public transit system is currently especially difficult for African American, Hispanic and low-income riders — something new Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway is aware of as she pushes for investments in bus rapid transit. The city also needs more space for bus storage. And both the Chamber and Rhodes-Conway are pushing for a change to state law that would once again enable the creation of regional transit authorities.
Transportation policies should also invest in bicycle infrastructure, maintaining roads and expanding the number of direct flights from Madison to major cities, the Chamber argues. Now that Dane County Regional Airport has a direct flight to San Francisco, next on the list of the Chamber’s recommendations are Boston and Houston.
Other key components of the Chamber’s agenda include supporting growth of new business ownership among women and people of color — a mission that can be supported by the state’s new committee on entrepreneurship and innovation, spearheaded by Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Others are improving water quality in the Yahara watershed, launching a youth savings account program, increasing and diversifying the city’s supply of workforce housing, investing in research both at universities and in the private sector, supporting the acquisition of F-35 fighter jets at the U.S. Air National Guard’s Truax Field and modernizing the Alliant Energy Center campus.
The Chamber also recently joined a group of 60 chambers around the country calling for federal legislation that would protect those brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and also supports immigration reforms that encourage entrepreneurship.
That move — along with the advocacy agenda as a whole — deserves applause. It shows a long-term vision for the Madison area and acknowledges that the city cannot truly succeed unless everyone who calls it home has the opportunity to succeed along with it.
At the center of the Chamber’s recommendations is a focus on equity.
“In business, equity means ownership,” Brandon said. “We think that’s a smart way to think about equity -— that people feel like they own a seat, not like they’re being given a seat, not that they’re taking a seat that wasn’t theirs — but that seat is rightfully theirs and they own a piece of the future of this community.”
The absence of equity, Brandon said, is the single greatest barrier to Madison fulfilling its potential for success.
“Certainly, direct flights and F-35s are good things that help push us forward, but if you’re going to truly succeed in any community in this country, you’re going to have to be a place that’s both welcoming and a place where diverse communities can see themselves succeeding and then actually succeed,” he added.
As the fastest-growing city in the state located in the fastest-growing county in the state, Madison has as much opportunity as it does risk. It’s important that our community leaders — like the Chamber and like Rhodes-Conway — be aware of that and work proactively to make sure that we gain more than we lose, and that those gains benefit all of our residents and not just those who are already advantaged.
“This is absolutely not the moment for a victory lap or a celebration of who we are,” Brandon said. “This is actually the opportunity for us to accelerate into that momentum and make sure we’re telling the story to the world that’s authentic and will attract the world’s talent, but also not lose sight of what has made this place great and made this a place people want to move to and risk having that foundation eroded.”
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