Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Greg Peck: If only Janesville had this problem

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Greg Peck
July 17, 2015

Anyone who has spent time walking around Madison likely has roamed State Street. This eclectic collection of shops and eateries is one of our capital city's many attractions.

As Janesville looks to revitalize its downtown riverfront, supporters agree with the latest redevelopment strategy that suggests businesses need to turn toward the Rock River and consider it an asset rather than a detriment to commerce.

Imagine if more and more restaurants and bars opened up with outdoor waterfront seating.

Plenty of places on Madison's State Street and the Capitol Square lure customers with outdoor seating. Stories in the Wisconsin State Journal about this arrangement caught my eye this week.

It seems that Madison Mayor Paul Soglin wants to charge more for this outdoor seating.

Owners of these bars, restaurants and coffee shops are throwing a tizzy. Soglin proposes switching the fee from the number of chairs outside to the square footage they use. That would boost the city's take for an average 250-square-foot sidewalk café from $750 to a whopping $3,250 by 2018, Dean Mosiman reported Thursday.

Soglin says he's concerned about the proliferation of such businesses that might be squeezing out retailers. He thinks the fee might help level the economic paying field. That, he reasons, could help small, local merchants who can't afford the rent paid by national chain stores.

Last week, Soglin introduced his proposal with a nine-page report that surprised many businesses. The report suggests outdoors seating adds to a great pedestrian atmosphere and evening activity. It promotes the businesses but also creates competition with retailers and crowds pedestrian and public amenities such as bike racks and seating.

The plan would greatly spike charges to some restaurants. For example, Colectivo Coffee, 25 S. Pinckney St., would pay $8,300 annually. It now pays $750.

Mosiman wrote that the 250-square-foot fee would quadruple those charged in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. However, it would fall below those in Miami Beach, San Diego and New York City.

Some businesses question a fee escalating so steeply so quickly, and Soglin says he's willing to negotiate. Business owners wonder if the fee would really enhance opportunities for retail, as Soglin suggests.

Maybe this outdoor seating is so lucrative that the mayor really just sees it as a way to help pad the city's coffers. Under his proposal, the city would reap almost $200,000 extra per year.

If only downtown Janesville someday has such a controversy.


Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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