By Brian E. Clark
Madison mayoral candidate Ray Allen and incumbent Dave Cieslewicz clashed at a noon luncheon Tuesday over the appropriateness of a $700,000 city loan two years ago to a medical technology firm. The pair spoke at a Wisconsin Innovation Network gathering and were grilled by three successful entrepreneurs.
While both men said they support helping companies in the city grow, Allen said it was wrong to take the money from the city’s Capital Revolving Fund because that money was supposed to aid the unemployed and underemployed in the city.
He said he would favor the creation of a private city backed venture capital fund to help local businesses.
The mayor, however, defended the loan and said he would “do it again tomorrow” because it helped create 50 jobs at TomoTherapy, a now thriving company that builds machines that pinpoints and then destroys tumors.
“And not all of those jobs are for PhD’s,” he noted.
For the most part, however, the pair was amicable during their debate. They were interviewed by Eric Apfelbach, president and CEO of Virent Energy Systems; Jan Eddy, retired president and founder of Wingra Technologies and Deven McGlenn, CEO of Neoclone.
The theme of the luncheon was how the next mayor of Madison could help foster a healthy climate for tech-based economic development in the city and region.
Allen – a business owner, state manager and former Madison school board member – said he would like Wisconsin’s capital city to become a regional hub for technology, business, education and culture.
“To get there, we need to provide basic services, safety for our residents, clean water and a healthy business climate,” said Allen, who said he would serve as Madison’s economic “cheerleader” to lure new companies to the city.
Cieslewicz, who is seeking his second term, said he is proud of his record during his first term and said Madison is moving in the right direction. He cited an economic development plan headed by University Research Park Director Mark Bugher as a major step in the right direction.
He also said Madison’s “Healthy City” initiative was a good way to attract high-tech firms that are interested not only in making money but having a high quality of life for their workers.
Both men said Madison needs to do more to become a diverse city and that that would help attract businesses that might be reluctant to relocate here.
“We also need to do more to help those with low incomes and minimum skills,” said Allen, who touted an Allied Drive trade apprenticeship program that he said grew out of his work on the Madison school board.
“But we also need to have good partnerships with the tech schools for training, social services so employers don’t have to baby-sit and then have jobs waiting for those who complete the programs,” he said.
Though the city has little control over the Dane County Regional Airport, both said the lack of direct flights to many cities is holding back growth.
Cieslewicz also said Madison suffers from the perception by some managers that the city does not have enough tech businesses to attract managers because they fear if the start-up they are running fails, they could not find comparable work in this area.
Though Madison’s commute and air pollution problems are minimal compared to larger cities around the country, both men said the region’s infrastructure needs work and that the city needs to encourage environmentally sound growth and transportation.