My Herald piece

[This ran in today’s issue of the Badger Herald. Comments are off here, please see the actual BH version.]

We learned last week the Hall of Fame Grill walked away from trying to open in University Square after licensing difficulties. It follows the failure of the Field Pass, in the same location, which fell apart mid-construction due to financing problems.

So now what?

No one wants to see the site sit empty. But unless Madison takes a more hands-on approach, that’s what is going to happen.

First, let’s be clear about what should go in the space — something that compliments the Kohl Center. The Kohl Center is one of the premier sports and entertainment facilities in the state. It routinely brings 17,000 people to downtown Madison. On event days, we want to serve as many of these people as we can. Even if we doubled our existing capacity, it still wouldn’t handle the surge of people who want to spend money downtown. We especially want a space that has a lot of seating and works no matter if you’re there for a Badger game or stuck taking your tween cousin to a Miley Cyrus concert. Wando’s or Brothers do not fit the bill. This is not a new idea — since the day the building was designed, that corner has always been meant to serve the Kohl Center, and it’s an embarrassment every game day when crowds stream past the empty space.

The political reality is the Alcohol License Review Committee is not going to permit anything new in the downtown area. There may be enough votes at the Common Council for an establishment like the Hall of Fame Grill, but it’s going to be uncertain enough that it will take a special breed of developer to put itself through the process.

At the same time, the economic reality is no business will be able to pay the bills unless it has a plan to operate for most of the day and night, and yes, that means operating as a bar at night. The ALRC may be ready to give a Chuck E. Cheese a license to serve a few beers on that corner, but you don’t need to have spent years in the hospitality industry to recognize anything big enough to serve Kohl Center-sized events will have a significant portion of its revenue from alcohol sales at night.

Given the demands we’re going to place on the eventual applicants, a better approach is for city staff, the concerned alders and the owners of the building to actively find the business we want in the space. There’s an obvious place to start: Marsh Shapiro and the Nitty Gritty, one block down.

If we’re never going to permit anything new, we have no choice but to look at current businesses to preserve the status quo. Following the existing University Square plans, the Gritty could serve up to 900 people in the new space, up from their current 375. That’d be a nice expansion of game day capacity. The Gritty has an established client base drawn from all parts of the city that would easily follow it to a new location, and it has a workable business for non-event days. That’s important in the current economic environment, given that banks aren’t likely to fund even slightly risky businesses. The fact that the University Square development has been slow (except for the lunch rush, is the food court ever busy?) makes anything new even riskier.

Shapiro is currently trying to sell the Gritty; after 40 years of running it he’s ready to retire. Now is a perfect time to move it. Even better, by moving the Gritty, there’s an opportunity to put together a deal to redevelop the corner of Frances and Johnson. (We’ll ignore for the moment any historical status the location may have.) If, as a city, we need to throw in some money to make this move practical, there’s a soon-to-be-amended Tax Increment Financing district right across the street. The current corner generates about $60,000 a year in taxes. The Palisades, also on that block, generates about $250,000 a year. A quick quarter-block tacked onto that TIF district would let us pay back a substantial TIF loan in just a few years, and then use the increment to finance other projects in the area and eventually give a substantial boost to local schools and government.

Aligning all of the players in this deal would be complicated, and could fail for both business and personality reasons. It’s further complicated by the fact that Shapiro has a role on the ALRC and is on record as being opposed to the Hall of Fame Grill. It would raise quite a few eyebrows if the Gritty moved in after the Hall of Fame Grill threw in the towel at the ALRC. However, in the end, the move would be good for the downtown. Two failures in a row should be the sign that more active involvement is needed to make that corner what we want.

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