Two kinds of screwy in Madison's bar debate

Please, tell us more things about millennials!

Caption: State Street will look like this again soon, if the young professionals will that it be so. Photo by Richard Hurd on Flickr.

Caption: State Street will look like this again soon, if the young professionals will that it be so. Photo by Richard Hurd on Flickr.

I’m not sure why there should be much debate over whether a downtown bar that’s already open should be allowed to have DJs on the weekends. But that has become one more peculiar sticking point in the ongoing debate about balancing alcohol and other businesses, according to a Wisconsin State Journal story published last week. HopCat, a mildly overpriced chain craft-beer bar, wants to add DJs Thursdays through Saturdays, which under city law means modifying its liquor license. Mayor Paul Soglin is asking Madison’s city council to say no.

In the State Journal piece, this basically becomes a bit of a debate between Soglin and one of HopCat’s lawyers. The story itself is fine, but a couple of key elements sum up a lot of what irks me about the ongoing discussion about Madison’s changing population and changing business makeup.

The first is that, yet again, Soglin is focusing in on one particular business in a way that doesn’t necessarily advance the conversation as a whole. Last fall, Soglin ended up with a beer mockingly named after him after he tried to prevent Mad City Frites, a place that at that point had already been open for a year, from getting a liquor license.

Soglin is particularly concerned that retail businesses are getting squeezed out of the State Street area, and there is a legimitate debate to be had about how to strike a balance between bars and other kinds of businesses downtown. For instance, a city staff report from last year lays out how dramatically that balance has shifted in favor of bars on State Street since, with bars accounting for 20 percent of the establishments there in 1989 and 48 percent in 2014.

But one place that already serves fried snacks adding beer to its menu isn’t an existential tipping point for this issue. And picking on a couple specific establishments, even to illustrate a broader point, doesn’t really make the way forward any clearer for anyone. It also doesn't address the bigger issue of rising rents downtown, and doesn't stanch a tide of new development that city officials seem helpless to tame or direct in any substantive way. When new buildings go up, we need to have a stronger discussion about how they'll impact the cost of running a storefront business downtown.

HopCat is not a place I’d want more Madison bars to resemble, but it should be able to have DJs. Especially on the nights when it’s already busy and loud anyway. Again, not a big leap here from what’s already there. (Since this involves HopCat’s liquor license, we could have a whole different discussion about decoupling music and booze economically and policy-wise, but I’ll save that for another time.) And Madison has an embarrassing wealth of good DJs right now who already spin a lot at bars downtown, so why not create a little more opportunity for them? Also, city officialese still calls them “disc jockeys,” for the record.

From the other side, HopCat’s attorney, Rick Petri, counters in the State Journal story with some classic generalizing about millennials/young professionals (ie. what older, more established professionals imagine millennials/young professionals to be): “Do they want a dry goods store? They order everything off the Internet.” It’s one quote in one story, from a lawyer making a case for his client, but it echoes a lot of rather sloppy and flippant statements that are taken seriously in the public discussion about Madison’s future. I’m particularly reminded of an Isthmus story from last year in which the president of Downtown Madison, Inc. suggested that millennials never eat at home. Instead of “millennials” or “young professionals,” they might as well be saying “people that we hope are flagrantly spendy at all times.”

Comments like these also completely blow past the fact that there will be other age groups, tastes, and levels of income in the mix, even in parts of the city that attract a lot of young people. Not to mention that the city will have to adjust to future shifts that we haven’t anticipated just yet. Take it from someone who works in a field that's been upended by the Internet: The surprises do not stop coming after you figure out that things have been upended by the Internet.

Look, of course we have to understand how the Internet has changed the nature of retail when we’re talking about how much presence local retail businesses should have downtown. But people tend to make a careless leap from acknowledging the Internet to making wild generalizations about it to preaching full-on inevitabilities. People still buy stuff from nearby places that have stuff. Not all the same stuff they used to, not with all the same habits, but come on. In fact, I know many people of the millennial age range who right now possess dry goods from stores. If we don’t acknowledge that there’s at least some nuance to these shifts, how can we have a real debate about how to react to them?

In addition to efforts the city has already launched, including a new State Street retail grant program, the city could create more room to experiment downtown. I don't know what form this would realistically take, but what about giving people room to try (and at times fail at) different business models, so that both officials and local businesses can learn a bit more about downtown's future business makeup by partially inventing it? This would push the discussion between a simplistic bars-vs.-retail stores dichotomy.

In moments like this, the conversation about Madison’s future feels rudderless. We keep hearing that young people are the reason for these debates over bars and retail, and for the rapid development that has already dramatically transformed central Madison. If that’s really the case, let’s talk about them in a way that's bit more thoughtful and a lot less reductive.