News & Events

Past Board Member: Bill Ryan

Past Board Member: Bill Ryan

Representing the University of Wisconsin- Madison, Division of Extension

As a young boy, Billy Ryan grew up in West Babylon NY, 35 miles from New York City. It was a Long Island suburb influenced by urban planner Robert Moses who favored highways over public transit. Billy’s dad had to fight daily traffic to the Bronx, but on Friday nights in the summer his dad would take him outside, not to look for stars, but to search for swirling skylights indicating the grand opening of another discount department store.

Then in fourth grade, Billy’s dad announced they were moving upstate to a small city in the Finger Lakes region. His homeroom teacher made the class write him a farewell letter. They made jokes about moving upstate to the wilderness. Their reference was 1960’s suburbia, lacking a downtown, but offering drive-through Dairy Barn stores.

An appreciation for Downtowns at an early age

Bill arrived at his new home, Ithaca, in 1966. What he saw was a real town, with an old hotel, a four-story department store, taxicabs, buses and more. There were bicycle shops, clothing shops and bookshops. Even a bakery with its window filled with black-and-white cookies.

Urban renewal quickly arrived to tear down some of the most historical buildings in town. Bill and his dad would often go downtown to peek over the construction fences to see if any groundbreaking had occurred. About a decade went by and then plans for a downtown pedestrian mall were introduced. In response to a contest to name the mall, Bill offered the name Ithaca Commons, while his mom and dad wrote an essay about how the mall would become a gathering place for the community. Bill’s memories become the foundation of his career and service to Wisconsin communities.

Connecting Downtowns and the University

After graduate school, Bill worked in Boston conducting hotel feasibility studies for a large accounting firm, then financial planning for a hotel company. In 1991 he moved to Madison to work for UW Extension in community economic development.  He worked with local Extension educators, faculty and students, to bring University knowledge to communities.  Bill’s current programming focuses on:

Downtown Market Analysis – An online toolbox for analyzing downtown was developed by Extension and the Wisconsin Main Street program nearly 20 years ago. It became a very popular resource to help learn about how to conduct research on issues important to your downtown. The site is now being updated with help of colleagues from around the state to reflect changing realities of the market and the purposes of downtown. It is expected to be ready by June.

Downtown Market Analysis Assistance – every year, Extension provides educational services to limited number of communities interested in conducting a market analysis. This past year, Extension worked with the City of Waupun.

Learning from the Experts Webinar – This is a quarterly educational program and book discussion.  The author of the book often joins the videoconference. Books are chosen based on their relevance and application to downtowns.

Research for Practitioners – materials produced to inform practitioners with data or best practices such as: Downtown Business Mix study, Creative Uses for Downtown Buildings, and Innovative Downtown Business case studies.. 

Downtown Economics Topics – a quarterly topic of interest written by an Extension educator or WDAC member.

A Continuing link to WDAC

Bill served on the WDAC board from roughly 2005 to 2015 and as Co-President for one year. The most rewarding project he has worked on was the launch and planning for the annual Small Community Forums. Bill retires this summer due to Parkinson’s, but promises to always be available to help his WDAC and Extension friends. Bill Ryan, 608–334-7735, [email protected]

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