Nearly two years into his third term as mayor, Paul Soglin outlined a path for Madison to regain its status as an economically "special" city in his State of the City address to the Rotary Club of Madison Wednesday.
The mayor spent most of his 40-minute speech talking about the ways the city could return to the days when the unemployment rate was as low as 1.9%.
First, he laid out ways to help families who fall below the poverty line, including initiatives to boost graduation rates.
He also called for an expanded food industry that could provide jobs for the city's increasingly diverse population and help improve the quality of life in struggling neighborhoods.
And he detailed how the city's development and zoning process has been streamlined and is actively working to attract and keep the kind of young, tech-savvy workers often employed by Verona's Epic Systems.
"We can return to a Madison with virtually no unemployment, with very few kids in households below the poverty line, to a Madison with a 100% success in graduation in our public schools," Soglin said. "This is the new frontier."
The graduation rate
More than 50% of children in "most elementary grades" in Madison public schools receive free and reduced lunches, Soglin said. The number of subsidized lunches provided is the city's primary tool for measuring poverty and is a number that has increased significantly since he first took office in 1973, he said.
Soglin called hunger the most significant impediment to learning for kids during the school day and said it must be overcome. He also said the city must do what it can to prevent children from being exposed to trauma, whether it happens in the home or the neighborhood.
He said he wants to work with local cable and Internet providers to set up a system where a family with a child can receive broadband access for $10 a month. Citing research that suggests the likelihood of graduation drops precipitously with frequent absences, Soglin stressed how important it is for kids to maintain a solid attendance record in school.
Integral to the mission of creating jobs for a diverse workforce and improving neighborhoods is the expansion of the local food industry, Soglin said.
He talked about the "exciting" ways in which Detroit was rebuilding its economy through food and technology. He described how vendors at the city's public market sell their products to wholesalers from midnight to 5 a.m. and then switch to individual customers for the rest of the day.
He said a public market in Madison could help diversify the economy for a diverse workforce. He recalled an immigrant woman he met at a Minneapolis public market who had come to the United States with a sixth-grade education but was able to build a business that now employs more than 40 people.
Soglin, who is now backing the creation of a public market in Madison, theorized that having higher quality food readily available could also help improve troubled neighborhoods.
"If you go to the weaker neighborhoods, you find, at best, prices for limited quality food are very high," he said. "If traditionally you needed a strong neighborhood to attract quality food, can the tail wag the dog? Can you introduce quality food and help accelerate its improvement? And that's one of the things we're going to do in Madison."
Although Soglin believes Madison's economy hasn't benefited from the presence of Epic Systems the way Austin, Texas has from the presence of Dell, the mayor still thinks Madison stands to gain from its "energy."
Soglin, who worked for Epic from 2004 to 2007, said the city is actively working to create the home environment sought by the type of young professionals hired by the nearby healthcare software company. He said the city frequently receives queries from developers who seek to capitalize on the "the Epic employee" demographic.
"It represents an age group, it represents an attitude," Soglin said. "And there is a market for their housing and we are trying to meet that with enthusiasm."
As evidence of that enthusiasm, Soglin said the city issued 565 dwelling permits in 2011 and more than doubled that amount in 2012. He said the city's zoning process is more streamlined and ticked off a series of recently completed, yet-to-be completed and proposed urban projects that will contribute to the area's appeal.
"When there's some 32-year-old from Epic who's ready to move on to the next stage of their life, we have an opportunity to work with them and provide the environment that they seek and we've made some strides in creating that environment over recent years," Soglin said.
[Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect that Soglin identified hunger as the most significant impediment to learning during the school day.]