Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Another Downtown Hotel?

It was a hundred years ago, in 1909, that John Nolen, Madison‘s original city planner, envisioned a lakeside park with terraces, connecting the Capitol to Lake Monona. 30 years later, Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to design an alternative to Nolen’s plan. It wasn’t until 1992 that Mayor Paul Soglin actually got the ball rolling on the plans for the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center; in ‘93 the voters approved a 67-million-dollar referendum to build the thing; and construction started in 1994.

I remember all the gloom and doom stories that circulated. It’s being built on a landfill and will collapse into the lake. Secret studies done by unknown engineers prove that the foundation pilings are already sinking. Construction will ruin the lake and kill all the fish. The roof will leak. On and on.

It opened on July18th of 1997, and a dozen years later it’s still standing, so I guess the naysayers were wrong. The city finally had a “convention center”, although much ado was made by city hall that the official name of the place was COMMUNITY and Convention Center, so it was to be the great hall of the people (which I called it for years on the air, during my radio days).

Now, to address the “convention” part of the name. Madison could have had a convention center long before the Monona Terrace opened. Hotel and resort developer John Q Hammons wanted to build one, along with a huge hotel on top of it. The Madison politicos argued so much about it that Hammons gave up, and built his 300-room hotel and convention center in Middleton - a few feet from the municipal boundary with Madison.

Now that Madison had a convention center…and a really world-class one, at that…it was time to book some actual conventions there. Slight problem: no hotel. Now ask yourself: have you ever gone to a convention in a city the size of Madison where you didn’t get off the elevator to attend the convention…and get back on the elevator to go to your room?

In 2000, Mayor Sue Bauman passed out the Kool-Aid, the powers that be drank it, and they decided to hand the Marcus Corporation 13 million dollars in city subsidies to build a 240-room hotel a block or so away. I’m not even going to get into the story of the gerbil tube that now connects the hotel with Monona Terrace. It’s all part and parcel of the huge denial going on about having a hotel ON SITE. The city to this day still talks about how many hotel rooms are within “walking distance” of Monona Terrace.

Now, in still another attempt to get to the magic number of 400 hotel rooms ON SITE, the city is talking about handing Marcus another bundle of money to build a 275-room hotel essentially across the street from Monona Terrace on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Owners of the other major downtown hotels are angry, having spent millions and millions of their own dollars to improve and renovate their properties, pointing out again that convention planners for events of any size want 400 rooms ON SITE.

Here’s the thing. Monona Terrace is doing OK, and that’s all anybody could ever realistically expect. There ARE plenty of local events held there, so it is a “community” center; and there are a fair share of small conventions that book the place. It's a tremendous asset to the city, and kudos to hizzoner (Mayor Soglin) for having the fortitude to get it off the ground 17 years ago. It’s beautiful, bordering on breathtaking when seen as part of the skyline when you round the bend inbound on John Nolen Drive.

We don’t need to throw city money at Marcus to build another “nearby” hotel. If they feel they MUST spend the money, hire an architect to redesign the Overture Center.

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