A high school that closed in 1969 wouldn’t seem to be something that would impact UW–Madison students today, yet it’s a bit of history that still reverberates in the areas around campus whether students know it or not.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (B.A. ’66, JD ’72) drew that connection during a visit to the Wisconsin School of Business, a visit that kicks off a new partnership between the city and the School to help provide experiential learning opportunities that connect students with the community.
The mayor spoke with a group of primarily BBA students at the end of the semester about the State Street business landscape, how it has changed over the years and why.
“Cities were always founded where people came together,” Soglin says. “What attracted them to places 200, 300 years ago is what attracts us to the area now. That’s characteristic of a special place.”
The evolution of what is attracting people to State Street is of particular concern for the mayor right now. He has asked the city council for a moratorium on new liquor licenses for State Street in order to assist retail, which is seeing its presence on the street diminish.
The changing face of State Street
From 1989 to 1994 there was little change in the business mix on State Street, Soglin says, but since 1994 retail establishments have dropped from a total of 94 to 70 while bars and restaurants rose from 33 to 62. That flurry, he says, has come since the economic recovery began in 2010.
“Clearly, there is a trend going on here,” Soglin says.
The mayor provided some historical context for the change. Downtown was once the retail hub of the city, with department stores, grocery stores, and other businesses that catered to the many families who lived in the area. The rise of the suburbs created a residential exodus from urban areas nationwide. In the 1960s that coincided with the baby boomers becoming college students. In Madison those college students needed housing downtown.
“Several students chipping in for an apartment could pay more for an apartment than a family could, and the exodus of families from downtown began,” the mayor says.
Madison Central High School closed in 1969, and in the coming years so did the elementary schools in the area. With the loss of schools came the loss of families in the neighborhood. Downtown retail disappeared, and some areas were replaced by topless bars and businesses that weren’t so family-friendly.
In response, the city of Madison began to overhaul downtown and State Street in the 1970s. The multi-phase project, championed by Soglin during his first term as mayor, created pedestrian and transit malls, widening the sidewalks of State Street and cutting off the street to anything beyond bus traffic, service vehicles, and emergency vehicles. New kinds of retail followed, catering to visitors and the student population. Changes to allow more liquor licenses brought in more restaurants, which helped spark the food destination that downtown became. Now, the mayor is worried that it’s come at a cost. Bars and restaurants can afford premium rents that many retailers cannot.
Why it matters to the city
One student at the mayor’s talk wondered why it mattered if retail disappears.
“The loss of retail means an inefficient use of the infrastructure,” Soglin says, including city buses, and parking garages. “It means we’ll lose the value of the investment.”
The mayor pointed out that after big events on Capitol Square, such as the Dane County Farmers’ Market or Art Fair on the Square, visitors head to the other retail businesses in the area.
“Visitors wander down State Street and find interesting shops, but they won’t do that if it’s simply one bar after another,” he says. “That’s the drive to maintain as vibrant a place as possible.”
An authentic way to learn
Haley Derge (BBA ’16) attended the mayor’s talk because was taking a class in the valuation of real estate. The class had studied State Street businesses and the challenges they face, she says, adding that she noticed how places to shop had been replaced by places to eat or drink.
“One of my favorite things is having my family come to visit,” she says. “I can’t just take them from bar to bar. When he talked about the use of the buildings, I took note of that because I didn’t think about the efficiency of the infrastructure.”
Making the connection between the classroom and the community is precisely the impetus behind creating a partnership with the city, says Ron Cramer, senior learning technology consultant at the Wisconsin School of Business.
“Whether you are a citizen or a business owner within a community, you have to understand the history and interconnectedness of that place and also recognize the depth of the problem that you are trying to address within that community,” he says. “When students work on paper-based case studies, for example, they may get a problem, but they don’t get the opportunity to understand the full context in which that problem is situated.
“We see our students at all levels being engaged in authentic and interdisciplinary learning experiences aligned with problems in the city,” he says.