Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

23 July, 2012

Does Madison "Need" a Public Market?

Last month Dave Cieslewicz argued in the pages of Isthmus that Madison needs a public market. He makes a case for it as a hub of community activity (one of those "third spaces") as well as an economic one. Of the latter, he makes two separate cases. One is obvious: vendors there will need people to staff counters and wait tables and there's the prospect of "spin-off benefits to local food producers". The second economic benefit is all or, at least, mostly Richard Florida-inspired BS.

Madison is in competition for smart, inventive entrepreneurs who create jobs, and these kids can live anywhere. There are certain indicators that market a community to people like that. A smoking ban says your community cares about health. Being pro-bike says you care about health and community design. And a public market says you care about health and local entrepreneurs and good food. It all adds up to that elusive idea and overused phrase "quality of life." It adds up to the indefinable coolness that sells your place to the world.

Madison is in an arms race for coolness with Boulder, Colorado and other meccas of hipness, apparently. The thing is, when young entrepreneurs here in Madison were asked by the Madison Economic Development Committee for their wish lists, it seemingly failed to unleash pent-up desire for a public market. Instead we got desiderata such as "High-speed internet access and a program providing bus passes, shared bicycles or parking" and "A 'web district' from East Washington Avenue to Lake Monona, with offices, cafes, and apartments that allow cats".

Around the same time Cieslewicz was making his plea Fast Company ran an article entitled "Why Tech Startups Are Mad For Madison" which demonstrates that entrepreneurs have chosen to start companies here in Madison despite the lack of a public market. While quality of life issues are mentioned, the emphasis is squarely placed elsewhere. Take pecuniary matters, for instance. One startup, Shoutlet, has received a lot of startup money. Why? "They like that we're fiscally conservative Midwesterners." Next is a mention of "a 25% tax credit to local angel investors who sink funds into young, emerging startups. Earlier this year, the legislation was amended so that the credit does not have to be paid back within the first three years, even if the business fails or is acquired. This has made investing locally extremely attractive to big companies--which keeps their money in Madison". Unsurprisingly, the UW also plays a big role here as does networking.

Late June was a popular time for discussing these issues as not only were there the articles above, but Jim Russell wrote a post at his Pittsburgh-centric blog Burgh Diaspora called "How Return Migration Will Save The World" in which he discusses return migration but also Richard Florida's "creative class". Russell points to Frank Bures' damning critique of Florida's ideas that was published in Thirty Two magazine.

Beres dismisses the creative class theories that are popular now and Madison along with it. Our fair burg, a model for Florida's theorizing, is waved off as simply "a giant suburb with a university in the middle". While I find his reasoning here off the mark – "I moved to Madison and didn't encounter creative types, ergo the place is a suburb" – I think he made a good case against Florida where his arguments are data-driven instead of being anecdotal. In the piece and the follow-up Bures shows that Florida's theories are backed up by scant evidence.

What was missing, however, was any actual proof that the presence of artists, gays and lesbians or immigrants was causing economic growth, rather than economic growth causing the presence of artists, gays and lesbians or immigrants. Some more recent work has tried to get to the bottom of these questions, and the findings don’t bode well for Florida’s theory. In a four-year, $6 million study of thirteen cities across Europe called “Accommodating Creative Knowledge,” that was published in 2011, researchers found one of Florida’s central ideas—the migration of creative workers to places that are tolerant, open and diverse—was simply not happening.

“They move to places where they can find jobs,” wrote author Sako Musterd, “and if they cannot find a job there, the only reason to move is for study or for personal social network reasons, such as the presence of friends, family, partners, or because they return to the place where they have been born or have grown up.” But even if they had been pouring into places because of “soft” factors like coffee shops and art galleries, according to Stefan Krätke, author of a 2010 German study, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference, economically.

“In the academic and urban planning world,” says Peck, “people are slightly embarrassed about the Florida stuff.” Most economists and public policy scholars just didn’t take it seriously.

This is partly because much of what Florida was describing was already accounted for by a theory that had been well-known in economic circles for decades, which says that the amount of college-educated people you have in an area is what drives economic growth, not the number of artists or immigrants or gays, most of whom also happen to be college educated. This is known as Human Capital theory, mentioned briefly above, and in Hoyman and Faricy’s analysis, it correlated much more highly with economic growth than the number of creative class workers.

I give our former mayor credit for being one of the city's biggest cheerleaders. He's always telling people how much he loves Madison and I think he had a vision for Madison while he was mayor. (Mayor Soglin, on the other hand, is our first responder mayor. He gets elected and starts putting out fires and patching things up. But he hasn't, to my mind, articulated a vision for the city.) My problem was that I disagreed with him on much of his vision. He's drunk on the Richard Florida Kool-Aid and thusly too preoccupied with those "soft" factors like public markets and bike lanes. Ergo his Madison is caught up in an endless game of keeping up with Boulder and Portland yet he can offer no proof that such things attract the much-heralded "creative class". He can only assure us that they contribute to the "elusive idea and overused phrase 'quality of life'" and an "indefinable coolness".

To be fair, Cieslewicz's boosterism does encompass more than soft factors but, for me, too much of his vision for the city is about attracting Richard Florida's creative class types. They're certainly welcome, of course, but I suspect that the presence of the UW and being the state capital do more to bring them to Madison than 1,000 miles of bike lanes, 100 coffee houses, 10 public markets, and a smattering of craft breweries/distilleries/meaderies. Don't get me wrong, I like all these things, but Milwaukee has a public market and a "vibrant" Third Ward yet it is still a struggling Rust Belt city.

At the end of the day, I'm ambivalent about a public market here in Madison. I've been to the market in Milwaukee and really enjoyed it. And so if some private investors want to build one, I say more power to them. But I am reluctant to have my tax money go towards building one on the basis of some kind of inferiority complex and dubious sociological/economic hypotheses.
|| Palmer, 4:44 PM


If we really want to compete with Boulder and Portland, we'll get us some mountains and/or an ocean.
Blogger Joe Walts, at 11:20 PM  
Aren't these big puddles of algae good enough for you?
Blogger Palmer, at 6:00 AM  
Frank Bures? Please, 3 times. Three. Times he moved to a new city WITHOUT HAVING A JOB THERE. Why? Because he thought the lifestyle would be good for him.(!!)

Jeebus, he's a data point in favor of Florida's ideas and he doesn't even realize it. What a clown. Also, how he could possibly move to Madison (oh wait, he didn't actually move here!) and not meet some of the creative people here is, um, interesting.

Last thought. We don't need a public market. That's a boondoggle. High speed internet _everywhere_ which would have been just as amazing 10 years ago as it would be today, would be great. Also great would be to have slightly lower rent which can mainly be achieved by increasing the supply of housing. More towers please.

Also, capitol east district. It'd be cool if we finally got that going.
Blogger Philip Crawford, at 6:43 PM  
Thanks for the comment, Mr. Crawford.

Regardless of Bures' lifestyle, I still don't see the merit in Florida's ideas that our former mayor did. I think it was Aaron Renn who noted that the Creative Class does not have long coattails. This is not to say that Florida is bereft of good ideas but I don't think they make a solid foundation for policy in and of themselves.

When you say "high speed internet" everywhere would be great, do you mean wireless? How fast? More fiber? Does "great" mean it would enrich people lives to be able to look at Facebook and surf porn anywhere at high speed? Or is there an economic benefit to it?

I think towers are on the way. Constellation on East Wash, the property adjacent to it, Union Corners, a tower on State Street, a tower at Johnson and Dayton, new apartments by Monona Bay, etc.
Blogger Palmer, at 9:03 AM  

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