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Opinion: Defunding the Public Market is yet another divestment from communities of color

Conceptual rendering of Madison Public Market

We are writing on behalf of the Northside Planning Council in response to the Mayor’s recently stated intention to withdraw $7 million of funding for the future Madison Public Market from the city’s capital budget, claiming that the financial costs are too burdensome in the wake of the pandemic.  Implicit in this decision is that the Public Market is not a priority for the city in light of this public health crisis and of the powerful antiracism uprising that has swept across the country since the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

The Madison Public Market is a public investment in building wealth for communities of color by leveraging the power of local food. We know that with robust infrastructure and policies dedicated to racial equity, local food is an effective vehicle for antiracism work.  A public market alone cannot accomplish this, but a public market centered on equity and in partnership with the Healthy Retail Access Program, FEED Kitchens, WWBIC, UW-Extension, a terminal market, numerous other partners and last-mile delivery infrastructure can play a powerful role in boosting minority entrepreneurship and wealth-building.

We were concerned from the beginning that the Public Market project would be another gentrified development supported by city tax dollars. So, we got involved.  As the home of FEED Kitchens and several equity-driven food systems programs, we made sure that racial equity would be central to the project and that the economic investment would go toward supporting minority entrepreneurs. We accomplished that through the MarketReady program, which we developed and administered to support 30 potential vendors of the Madison Public Market, with an eye toward ensuring that historically underrepresented groups would have a chance at entrepreneurship in that space.

Through the relationships we built in MarketReady, we were able to partner with participants to navigate the structural barriers that otherwise often derail entrepreneurs of color. The Public Market was supposed to be the culmination of that work, a launching pad to incubate and celebrate the growth of an authentically diverse vendor community. It was an opportunity for the city to invest in breaking the cycles of poverty in which families are trapped here in Madison by giving smart, talented, committed business owners a level playing field for once.  

The city has used the MarketReady entrepreneurs —their faces and their stories — to promote its equity portfolio, even while we have worked with the participants in the program to intervene and ensure they were comfortable with the messaging. But, together with the entrepreneurs, our hope was that, in the long run, the public investment in minority entrepreneurship would be worth it.  

And now the Mayor is proposing to withdraw city support for the Madison Public Market. 

In light of the Mayor’s actions on F35s, the civilian oversight board of the Madison Police Department and the Metro bus storage facility on the Northside, her respect for public process and her concern for racial justice seem absent, especially considering she ran on a platform of equity.

The contention that the pandemic has made this project unaffordable is inauthentic, at best, and deceptive, at worst. The $7 million that the Common Council designated for the Madison Public Market are funds generated through the East Washington Tax Incremental District. These funds cannot directly be used in the operating budget for Covid relief, unless the city closes the TID and shuts down the possibility of further redevelopment in the district.  These funds are not adding to the City’s debt load in the capital budget.  In fact, the city’s funds have been used to leverage millions of additional dollars in private investment, thanks to the work of the Madison Public Market Foundation. We are curious about the limitations of using TIF funds outside of the district that generated them (We contacted the city’s TIF coordinator, but did not get a response.). But regardless of the legal restrictions, it is a matter of equity that the funds raised through the gentrification of the East Washington corridor should be reinvested into communities of color in that district. 

These funds were allocated as the culmination of over a decade of work and a Racial Equity and Social Justice analysis that helped fine-tune the details of this project. To abandon that is to admit that the City’s commitment to its equity priorities and public processes is disingenuous, subject to the whim of any passing administration.

This mayor has always expressed ambivalence about the Public Market. But when she decided to pull the funding via a unilateral, closed-door decision-making process and announced it in the newspaper before informing stakeholders and the MarketReady participants who, as entrepreneurs of color, were repeatedly used to bolster the city’s equity track record, it undermined the thousands of hours of work of literally hundreds of people over more than 10 years.

We ask that Madison Public Market funding be fully maintained in the City’s capital budget.