Wisconsin Historical Society

Feature Story

Public Relations Campaign Saves Madison's Historic State Street Buildings

A Positive Message and Multifaceted Campaign Saves the Historic Buildings

A Positive Message Saves Historic Buildings | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

In 2011, six historic buildings on the 100 block of Madison's famed State Street faced demolition. In response, the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation (MTHP) launched a multifaceted public relations campaign to fully engage the community in a conversation about these properties. The MTHP chose to devote many of its resources to this issue for three key reasons:

  • The importance of State Street to Madison's identity.
  • The prominence of the 100 block.
  • The potential loss of six buildings that have greatly contributed to the history and culture of the city.

Presenting a Positive and Reasonable Message

The MTHP's campaign began when a private foundation proposed to demolish and redevelop all six buildings, which were located in the heart of the city's historic State Street commercial district. Two of the buildings proposed for demolition were locally designated landmarks. The foundation's proposed development was intended to benefit the city by providing rental income to the city's Overture Center for the Arts (also located on State Street). The MTHP sought to persuade the foundation to rehabilitate the historic buildings instead of demolishing them.

The MTHP's Executive Director, Jason Tish, and board members made a point to keep their message positive and their arguments reasonable. They also resolved to never make personal accusations or take cheap shots at opponents.

Using a Multifaceted Public Relations Strategy

As part of its multifaceted PR campaign to persuade the foundation to rehabilitate the historic buildings, the MTHP took the following actions:

  • Met with the project manager to gauge the foundation's willingness to consider a rehabilitation approach to the block.
  • Advocated for rehabilitation in the community by writing numerous letters to local newspapers and giving radio and television interviews.
  • Created a Facebook page devoted entirely to the 100 block project.
  • Developed and distributed fliers and buttons on State Street with a logo and motto designed for the cause: "Keep State Street Real."
  • Engaged a local artist to create architectural renderings that suggested how the block could be revitalized with rehabilitated buildings.
  • Partnered with a local architect to present the renderings and arguments for rehabilitation at public information and city planning meetings.
  • Met one-on-one with Common Council members in case the foundation's denials were appealed to that body.

Holding One-on-One Meetings

The MTHP's strategy of meeting with individual Common Council members proved to be critical. The city committees charged with reviewing and approving the proposal denied the necessary permits to demolish the two landmark buildings. They also sent strong signals that the proposal faced an uphill battle toward approval. As a result, the foundation withdrew its original proposal.

A few months later, the foundation presented a new proposal to rehabilitate the two landmark buildings plus a third significant building that held the corner of the block. The foundation also proposed to replace the other three buildings with new construction that fit the scale of the State Street district.

Making a Difference

The MTHP was able to persuade the foundation to retain more of the 100 block's historic character by focusing on these three key approaches:

  • Casting the historic buildings as a community asset.
  • Keeping their message positive and reasonable.
  • Lobbying the people who would cast votes.

The MTHP's efforts also paid dividends in the form of increased public exposure for the organization. Shortly after the foundation proposed the compromise, a front page news article appeared in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal with the prominent headline "LANDMARK INFLUENCE." The article highlighted the MTHP's reasonable and successful efforts to affect development decisions in Madison's historic downtown.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.