The Rebranding of Madison's Halloween Mayhem

In the fall of 2005, some 100,000 college students stormed State Street, the main drag in Madison, Wis. Many of them looked for windows to smash, shops to loot, and things to set on fire. They were merely reenacting a sacred pastime that has set the elite University of Wisconsin-Madison apart from its peers since 1977. "The main objective on Halloween in Madison wasn't just to get blackout drunk," says Andrew Tobin, a 2006 graduate and currently an art director at New York City-based advertising agency DraftFCB. "It was to incite enough of a ruckus that riot police had to show up on horseback with tear gas and pepper spray."

No one does Halloween like Madison. In 2005, more than 450 people were arrested while $350,000 of taxpayers' money was spent on controlling the chaos. For decades, college students from around the country have descended upon the city of more than 200,000 for a weekend-long party, punctuated by a march on State Street. In theory this should provide a mid-semester boon for local businesses. "Last year I spent somewhere between $40 and $70 on one costume," says Gamma Phi Beta sorority sister Jessica Klobucar, who celebrated Halloween on four separate nights. However, the thrill of additional revenue streams for liquor stores and fast food joints has been traditionally offset by local business owners' concerns about an annual Midwestern re-creation of the L.A. riots. After Halloween 2002—the first year police used tear gas and pepper spray—many retailers began standing in their stores with the lights on to prevent vandalism. "They had to spend the entire night in there," says Mary Carbine, executive director of Madison's Central Business Improvement District advocacy group.

Dave Cieslewicz, Madison's mayor since 2003, tried for years to turn the event around. He'd banned glass on State Street during Halloween, and had law enforcement train for the event on mounted horses. Nothing worked. After the mayhem of 2005, however, everything changed. Cieslewicz didn't cancel Halloween in Madison: He took it corporate.

In 2006, Cieslewicz branded the event "Freakfest" and gated a stretch of State Street as its venue. He charged revelers $5 to enter, installed floodlights, and capped attendance at 80,000. At a cost of $400,000—80 percent of which was spent on security—it was Madison taxpayers' most expensive Halloween ever. At the end of the night, though, no one had been pepper sprayed. "There were charges that I was sanitizing this great organic event," says Cieslewicz. "It was very controversial." Nevertheless, Cieslewicz was reelected six months later.

The following year Cieslewicz hired concert promoter Frank Productions to organize the event. Sponsors, including Mountain Dew, endorsed the evening, and harmless pop band Lifehouse played a set. In 2009 the city recovered $170,000 through ticket sales. Aided by $30,000 from sponsors, the net cost of the event dropped 88 percent, to $41,000, and arrests were down 89 percent from 2005 totals.

This year, Cieslewicz expects about 50,000 party-goers. With revenues predicted to be around $200,000, the town hopes to break even for the first time. Students and alumni now largely accept the new status quo. Jelani Roy, a 2003 graduate who practices law in New York City, fondly remembers huddling around a bonfire with friends as police fired tear gas canisters. "Halloween used to be our thing. For the students, by the students," Roy says. "Now it's theirs." Of course, the city views the transition differently. "Since we rebranded the event," says Joel DeSpain, Madison's public information officer, "it's become something we're proud of."

The takeover has also benefited business owners, who view the diminished threat of hooliganism as a good thing. For example, Ian's Pizza on State Street brought in $14,000 last Halloween, thousands more than it brings in during football weekends. "The thing with Halloween," says Ian's general manager Lexy Frautschy, "is that people from other cities and states come into town to party." That remains the core of Madison's business plan. "The city is making money off of students walking down a public street during one of the best parties on any campus in America," say Tobin. Who said no one ever learned anything in college?

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