Wed. Oct. 2nd, Community Input Meeting for 2015 Economic Development Strategy hosted by the city at Warner Park Community Center.

Last week I sifted through the power point presented by Paul Soglin at the Economic Development symposium at the beginning of September. Integrated into the presentation were some audience participation exercises; each table had a large sheet of paper with one of four categories in the center: Innovation, Talent, Opportunity, and Place.  The audience was to brainstorm ways in which these determinants of Madison’s economic development are or could be better expressed and write them down in the blank space.  The format was copied again throughout the month at community input meetings around the city, with the last of these meetings taking place Oct. 2nd.

I was happy to see a few familiar faces at the Oct. 2nd meeting at Warner Park, and even more so for the conversations which were had. Sitting around the “Innovation” table, felt-marker in hand, I discussed with five other members of the public and one city employee the need for alternatives to innovations centering only around “tech.” Tech companies, everyone seemed well aware, are rather skewed towards hiring affluent, extensively educated employees; mostly middle or upper class college grads who have learned to write software code. The conversation turned naturally toward the need for better math and science education from grade school up. The Innovation category overlaps significantly, it turns out, with Opportunity.

One thing I was glad to hear was the suggestion that we need to encourage  jobs in skilled trades, not just technologies. I was tempted to suggest several ideas but held my tongue, knowing that there was a chance, should they get written down, that they would be presented by Paul Soglin as his own ideas in a few months when debate time rolls around and I would have nothing to say but “that’s my idea!” I feel a bit more comfortable presenting them here, however.

An idea which I gave away (oops!) as I first sat down at the Place table when I first came in (a few minutes late, having biked all the way from downtown) was the suggestion that a citywide effort to inventory the all of the goods and services we consume on a yearly basis should be undertaken, much as has been done by the Rocky Mountain Institute in the past, in order to identify areas of high demand which are currently being met by providers outside of the city or the state. This would allow us to “plug the leaks” by encouraging and subsidizing local businesses which could meet those demands instead of paying extra costs for transportation and/or letting money escape which could be circulating back into Madison’s economy.

Such a measure would also restore some of the power to neighborhood committees for self-determinism. Given recent actions by the city council it seems that this may be necessary in order to restore some faith on the parts of residents in their city government’s receptivity…isn’t it ironic that in the same month the city council ignored the building protocols put forward by the Marquette neighborhood association and alder Marsha Rummel but they are seeking input from citizens on how we should be guiding the city’s development?

I’d also like to see a few changes made under “Place” — all of these pop-up concerts and entertainment events strike me as overly manufactured. We ship in bands from Canada and across the US for things like the Taste of Madison and [insert summer festival here] when we have fantastically talented local bands that are barely scraping by. Instead of the tourist model we should be growing the local artist incubation model. Spaces open to members of the creative public (as I believe is being discussed for the Yahara River area development, Yay!). We could use a lot more of this.

I don’t think that Paul Soglin or the city council is expecting the economic climate to change much in the next five years, considering what they’ve been talking about, but I along with many others anticipate some radical changes. Some of these will be positive and some negative. How Madison fares will be up to what we can do to prepare for these.

Most people seem to have some vague sense that we will see a repeat of the 2008 economic crisis, and we will. The difference will be that this time things will end up much the was they did for Greece and Ireland. We are wasting our city’s time growing industries which compete in the global market because those companies will end up being bought by the major international players. Non-tangible products such as software and technology cannot be contained within a local area.

Our country’s reliance on monoculture and industrial farming is likewise driving us towards a cliff. Take a few minutes to look up “super-weeds.” The overuse of pesticides and herbicides and transition to GMO crops has set us up for a fall. The complex systems which underlie healthy soil have been steadily eroded across the country and the selective pressure created through biotech companies’ use of herbicides has bred weeds which are thick enough to stop an industrial combine in its tracks. The same companies are now asking for FDA approval to use even more toxic chemicals to kill the weeds, despite the fact that any 7th grader could tell you that it would just create even tougher weeds!

[In order to support healthy, nutrient-rich plant life the soil must contain a network of insects, fungi, and bacteria which continually recycle and renew it. The application of chemicals has all but completely removed these networks from the equation. How many years before the soil can support nothing but the more resilient weeds, not even able to grow the corn and soy that were supposed to “feed the world.” ]

For these reasons we must undertake the task of setting up a comprehensive urban agricultural infrastructure. There are a number of ways we could go about doing this. The first way I would propose would be to get creative with our TIF districts, putting the money straight to building greenhouses. More development and higher population density will only create  a greater need. No more high-rises until we can fully support those people who already live here. Those greenhouses could also quickly be turned to growing hemp once it is allowed (I know I keep coming back to it, but hemp is going to SAVE THIS COUNTRY!). Hemp can be turned into myriad building materials as well as being highly nutritious. It can also be turned into bio-diesel, pelletized to be burned to generate energy, and/or cooked into a super-conductor which transfers energy with the same efficacy as graphene; currently the superconductor gold-standard.

We need to think a little bit bigger if we want to truly “innovate.” It’s time to take this city off auto-pilot.



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