If the term “civic booster” applies to anyone in Platteville, it applies to Cindy Tang.
To name three examples: Tang was instrumental in the creation of the Main Street Program. She also was involved in the David P. Canny Rountree Branch Trail and Library Block projects as a fundraiser and donor.
Tang’s Inspiring Community group helps connect people with ideas with funding options and expertise to determine if someone’s ideas for civic improvement can become reality.
“People come to me with ideas, and I pull people together and see if there’s interest in the project, and if there’s interest we hold a public meeting” in search of “ownership — people who are going to do the work and run the campaign,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
If there’s one unifying theme of Tang’s community work, it’s “about creating a community that young families want to live in — it comes down to that. And then finding people who want to work on these sorts of projects.
“I really enjoy working with businesses and new leaders helping them discover leadership skills, helping somebody advance their idea or helping businesses go to the next generation.”
The Racine native’s entrepreneurial impulse began as what she calls “a faculty wife” of Prof. Min Ming Tang at what then was the University of Missouri’s Rolla campus. She earned an economics degree from what became the Missouri University of Science & Technology and a Master of Business Administration degree from Drury University, starting her first business as “kind of an MBA project.”
Tang started working on a doctorate in finance, thinking she would “maybe be a university professor. Before I finished I figured out I wasn’t going to be in one spot long enough to become a university professor.”
When Tang came to Platteville, she and her father started Insight Industries, a software enginereing ffirm, with a group of UW–Platteville engineering faculty and alumni in 1987. Insight began in the old St. Mary Catholic Church convent, now the Family Advocates domestic abuse shelter, before building the first building in the Platteville Industry Park.
“We built on the corner in case we were the only building there,” she joked.
Insight took off when it got a contract with Rockwell in Cedar Rapids. A decade later, Tang sold the company to Jim Schneller and other employees.
“This was a community I had raised my son in, and it is a nice community,” said Tang. “I wanted it to stay in the community, and a lot of people I had hired out of college are still working there.
“It becomes you. You do everything. You don’t hire somebody to do everything. You are responsible for your own destiny, and I like that. It’s that independence, and if you make a mistake, it’s your mistake, you own it, and if you do something well, it’s also yours.”
Once Tang sold Insight, she couldn’t see herself as “kind of semi-retired.” She became one of the founders of Platteville’s Main Street Program.
“I worked with a lot of Main Street businesses to mentor and help them, and one thing I do behind the scenes is to help them figure if running a businesses is what they want to do,” she said, including looking at their books and helping determine the quality of their business model and plans. “If somebody’s looking to help, and I’m one of several people that advise them — we have bankers and attorneys that will support the small businesses of Platteville — you better be good at a lot of small things” to successfully run a business.
Tang takes pride in the current state of Main Street, compared with the former state of Main Street.
“I hired lots of people. In my time, I had 100 engineers here, and we would bring people from across the country, and at the time half of the storefronts were empty, and it was an embarrassment,” she said. “And I would assume it was an embarrassment for the university also. People come to town and look at the community, and one of the first places they go is downtown.
“I was in the Main Street program 20 years ago, and I’m proud of how far downtown has come. It’s trying to get the right mix of businesses for the community. It took us a number of years to recruit the coffee shop, and that was about 15 years ago. It’s strategically looking at what you need. It’s looking for retail that fits our niche.”
Main Street improvements are not limited to the low number of vacant storefronts. “When we started half of the second floors weren’t used either,” said Tang, who worked with building owners “to figure out how to utilize that space. People want to live downtown.”
Tang’s goal is to bring more young families to Platteville, and she believes one way to do that is through Platteville’s businesses.
Another is through civic improvements. The David P. Canny Rountree Branch Trail expanded the original unpaved trail to loop around the south end of Platteville along Rountree Branch. More than 40 percent of the $1.67 million project came from resident and service club contributions, local business donations, and grants and business donations outside Platteville.
The Library Block project replaced buildings at the corner of West Main Street and South Chestnut Street with a library twice the size of the previous library and a Holiday Inn Express hotel. The previous library became the Neighborhood Health Partners clinic, which had been in one of the buildings demolished for the library.
While the building was funded through a partnership between the city and a Minnesota developer, “The community raised half a million dollars for the inside amenities,” said Tang. “That was all donation-driven. They didn’t have to use the worn-down furniture from the old library.”
Tang also is involved in the drive to build the Legion Park Event Center, the replacement for the former Art Hall. The new building is scheduled to be completed in mid-April, with use starting in mid-May.
“It’s a collaboration between public–private partnerships, and that’s basically what I’ve been working on with Inspiring Community, groups that want to step up and take ownership of what they’re interested in,” said Tang.
The city originally planned to make repairs to Art Hall, but that project moved into something far bigger, in terms of scope, price tag, donations and public involvement.
“I honestly didn’t know any of the people in the room for the Legion Field meeting — they were people I hadn’t worked with on other projects, which is nice,’ said Tang.
The event center, now under construction, has a price tag of $1.1 million, including numerous upgrades after plans were released to the public. Of that total, $809,000 has been raised as of mid-December.
Future projects may include what Tang describes as “an interactive playground” with a farm theme at Legion Park.
Tang is also involved with trying to find funding for the estimated $50,000 needed to fund an estimated $75,000 study of Fire Department needs, including possibly a new or expanded fire station.
But, she said, “It shouldn’t be someone else making the decision for them. Everybody has to have the same vision. The money shouldn’t come first; a vision that everybody shares has to come first.”
Tang has one son and one grandson, both of whom live in Madison. Her husband, Min, died in 2000.
Tang’s office is in the former Carnegie Library, which after the next library, now Neighborhood Health Partners, opened was used briefly as a youth center, then offices for Southwest Design before the company was purchased by Delta3 Engineering.
“I wanted to preserve it, conserve it,” said Tang. “I’m interested in saving buildings like these. Sitting empty wasn’t good for it either.”