Shaping DowntownNo Finer Place For Sure
And that’s thanks to the many women who make up the backbone of downtown Madison. They are strong. Determined. Passionate. Innovative. Forward-thinking. Whether in the forefront or behind-the-scenes, they all share a common goal: making the city of Madison and the downtown area a thriving, bustling, smart and inclusive metropolis that commands respect. Above all, these women are working to make this a place where everyone can find something, and feel comfortable and connected. They strive to make Madison a place to call home, a place to have fun, a place to have basic needs met. We’ve seen dramatic change occur in our great city, especially over the past 20 years. But the heart of Madison will always remain the same, thanks to these women, and the many others, who are an integral part of what makes Madison tick.
Tiffany Kenney’s heart is firmly planted in Madison. As the executive director of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, Kenney has taken on yet another role that enhances our fair city. Before accepting the district position one year ago, Kenney was the president and owner of Locavore ROAR (a specialty marketing firm for the food and beverage industry that has extended its reach beyond Madison), a marketing director for Madison Magazine and a communications director for the Madison Area Builders Association.
“I have a thing for Madison, so I jumped at the chance to work for downtown Madison,” she says. Kenney moved here to attend UW–Madison and never left.
Kenney’s work through the Business Improvement District markets downtown as a premier shopping, business and entertainment district. Larger cities like Milwaukee and Chicago can have upward of 50 such organizations—Madison only has one, but it’s making a big impact on locals and visitors alike.
Kenney says her organization strives to create a “welcoming environment,” implementing a planter décor program and free public programs, like concerts and kids’ crafting activities. In 2017, Kenney shares that the district will hold a Night Market series featuring local artisans, food and music.
Referring to downtown as “the pulse of the city,” Kenney says, “My previous professional positions have allowed me the opportunity to learn more about retail, more about restaurants and most importantly, a lot about Madison. This job is the chance to bring all this experience together and help shape a strong retail future for downtown.”
Anne Nujahr Morrison
Downtown isn’t just for students anymore. “In the past five to 10 years, we have seen a surge of nonstudent households moving downtown,” says Anne Neujahr Morrison, Development Associate at Urban Land Interests, a real estate development firm specializing in commercial and residential properties.
It was co-founded by Tom Neujahr more than four decades ago, and is now one of the largest property owners downtown. Neujahr Morrison, Tom’s daughter, returned to her roots in 2012 after spending a decade working for lenders, architects and developers in New York City and Madison.
“I’ve had a front row seat nearly since the beginning. As I grew up downtown, I sometimes spent summers cleaning apartments and filling in for admin staff.”
That front row seat has paid off. Neujahr Morrison has a keen understanding of downtown Madison, conceptualizing projects and managing design and construction of new developments, including chic residential locations Nine Line at the Yards, SEVEN27, Lincoln School Apartments, and in 2017, Quarter Row.
“We’ve long felt that having quality residential developments is essential to a vibrant downtown,” she says.
Putting her passion for Madison into the development projects she tackles, Neujahr Morrison says, “I love that our downtown is multifaceted—it’s our central business district, a dining and shopping destination, a cultural attraction, an education center, our civic center and a residential community. I love its history and I love that it’s evolving. The more vibrant and active our downtown is, the more vibrant and active our whole city is.”
With a big personality and even bigger heart, Susan Schmitz is just the right person to be at the helm of Downtown Madison, Inc.,the behind-the-scenes organization making downtown click.
Starting as president during what she calls a “renaissance era,” when Jerry Frautschi was funding the revamp of Overture Center and the first beams of the Monona Terrace were being erected, forever changing Madison, Schmitz jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it all.
Her list of accomplishments over the past 18 years is dense, and many of them involve different projects to revitalize downtown: forming the first Business Improvement District to encompass State Street and the Capitol Square; re-branding Halloween into Freakfest in order to create a safer student celebration; making the gorgeous new Edgewater hotel a reality.
A fourth-generation Madison native, Schmitz is invested for the long term. In 2017, she plans to make some (more) noise about the city’s transportation issues, a pet project she started with former Gov. Jim Doyle.
“I will not stop until the greater Madison area has a sustainably funded Regional Transit Authority that can provide many modes of connected transportation options for all people in this community,” says Schmitz.
And she strives for a more inclusive downtown in 2017, believing varied entertainment venues are key. Citing the summertime Dane Dances event as a perfect example where “you see every age and color you can imagine,” Schmitz says “my dream is that the downtown looks like that all the time.”
What falls under Gloria Reyes’ umbrella as deputy mayor encompasses so many elements of the city that she is undoubtedly making a mark on the way downtown feels. For the past two years, Reyes has had oversight of public safety, civil rights, public health, community services, education and art, yet she remains humble about her role.
“We have a lot of great employees who are actually doing the work. That’s where the changes are being made,” says Reyes.
Having 12 years of experience in the Madison Police Department has helped Reyes appreciate the sense of urgency in many areas of her job, coordinating downtown events like Freakfest to ensure they go off without a hitch.
In 2017, Reyes will use entertainment as a vehicle to bring more diversity downtown. She’s proud of the work being done by the Madison Children’s Museum in changing their programming to promote diverse communities. And she’s looking forward to working with the Business Improvement District in that respect as well. She believes strongly that music and entertainment venues can make an impact and has set up a task force of owners, artists and city representatives to hash out a successful entertainment plan.
Although humble, she recognizes the significance of her work.
“What I’ve been able to bring into this position is the ability to help our managers and our city employees navigate [both] internal city government [and] connect them with our communities of color, bringing the racial equity and diversity dialogue within the decision-making process in the city.”
As Claire Oleksiak, community services manager, celebrates her one-year anniversary with the Madison Parks Division, she has big plans for green spaces in the city.
Responsible for the “use experience” of 260 parks, Oleksiak views these as opportunities embedded throughout the whole city to facilitate partnerships. She’s involved in a federal grant called Connecting Children to Nature, a partnership with the public health department promoting equitable nature access to children and
families across the city. Madison is one of only seven cities in the country participating in such an undertaking.
The idea is to get youth more connected to the outdoors by including them in parks planning. This summer, Oleksiak placed interns at Centro Hispano to interview and observe kids and their outdoor experiences, which led to building a nature-based play area. Oleksiak is excited to continue the work with school districts and early childhood programs.
“We want to have kids telling us how we can make the spaces more agreeable,” says Oleksiak.
It’s all part of Oleksiak’s idea of “placemaking,” that strengthening the connection individuals and a community have to their park spaces will strengthen their connections to each other by their interactions that occur in the park space. She also wants to reduce barriers to accessing or enjoying park spaces, which will diversify the uses and users and increase the positive time people spend in Madison parks.
“Parks thrive because of the communities that support them and use them. I get to help strengthen those connections and expand those opportunities.”
She calls herself a “behind-the-scenes person,” but Stacy Nemeth’s influence on the growth of downtown is vital, whether she admits it or not. Through her day job as chief operating officer of Fiore Companies, Inc., her volunteer work as chairperson of Downtown Madison, Inc. and treasurer of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, she is making an impact by supporting those organizations with management, organizational and financial expertise to keep them running efficiently.
“Things like that aren’t necessarily glitzy or exciting,” says Nemeth, “but they’re instrumental in making sure that an organization like that continues into the future… so that we can have an impact on the community.”
What “felt like a fairly small city” when she moved here 20 years ago is now a much more “cosmopolitan city,” which comes with challenges such as adapting transportation needs. And addressing new disparities, such as the fact that all the new housing construction is high-end. Nemeth would love to see a wider variety of people living downtown, including families with children. That would also mean a need for more educational services like schools and child care.
“Folks aren’t going to move downtown if they then have to get in their car and drive out to the suburbs for quality child care,” says Nemeth. “Those are things that I think are really areas that we need to work on for the future. Once you bring more density of home ownership or renters into the downtown then that obviously supports all the other things that people want to see downtown.”