Madison spending committee puts brakes on new community center


By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Madison’s Board of Estimates declined to spend $469,000 to purchase a vacant building on the city’s southwest side for a new community center Monday after board members learned a nonprofit already runs a community center less than 500 feet from the proposed site.

“We’re doing quite a bit in the neighborhood,” said Kay Stevens, executive director of Wisconsin Youth Company, a nonprofit that runs afterschool and summer programs for school-aged kids in the Elver Park neighborhood.

Stevens said the Wisconsin Youth and Family Center offers an afterschool program for low-income students in K-5th grade. The Center also has a daily program for about 225 teens that includes a computer lab, gym, small garden and homework help.

Alderwoman Lisa Subeck has tried to persuade city officials to purchase the vacant Griff’s Restaurant and Frozen Custard building across the street from Elver Park for over two years. She wants to turn the building into a neighborhood center for afterschool programs and possibly a place where teens and adults can learn school and job skills.

Stone’s throw: Madison alderman paused plans for a new community center after learning one already exists 500 feet from the proposed site.

But she forgot to mention to colleagues that another taxpayer-funded neighborhood center shares a property line with the proposed second site.

“All this time talking,” said Alderman Larry Palm. “I mean, it just has to settle with me.”

The board sent the proposal to the Community Services Committee, which Subeck sits on, for further review.

Should the city purchase the building, taxpayers will also be on the hook for “several hundred thousand dollars or more” for renovations, according to a fiscal note attached to the proposal. Taxpayers would also be asked to spend an unaddressed amount for operating and maintenance costs — which runs around $100,000 annually for similar facilities.

On Monday, Subeck said she never considered the Wisconsin Youth and Family Center “as a community center.”

“We have kids who are literally playing in the middle of the street with no place to go,” Subeck was quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal two weeks ago. “We lack neighborhood gathering spaces. This has been long needed. The need has only grown.”

But nearby residents do have several options for “gathering spaces” in addition to Wisconsin Youth and Family Center.

Stevens expects construction to finish at another Wisconsin Youth Company community center at Theresa Terrace, less than a mile from Griff’s, in February 2015. The city purchased a vacant duplex there in 2013 to turn into a neighborhood center. Wisconsin Youth Company made the sole bid on operating that facility, which will cost city taxpayers in the range of $100,000 annually starting in 2015, according to city records.

The Meadowood Neighborhood Center, a second community center less than two miles from Griff’s, provides a “safe, supervised place for youth during after school and evening hours, a place for neighbors to meet and socialize, a place for senior adult programs, a much needed space for neighborhood and other group meetings and space for MSCR programs such as art, fitness, yoga, after school programs, dance,” according to the Madison Schools and Community Recreation website.

Mayor Paul Soglin said southwest Madison needs to expand its youth and adult “capacity building” options beyond Meadowwood and Wisconsin Youth Company.

“The location of the facility is outstanding,” he said. “Strategically, it’s a very important site.”

The vacant restaurant sits across the street from Elver Park, Madison’s largest with 227 acres. The park features a disc golf course, playground, softball field, soccer field, and basketball and tennis courts. The city expects to finish construction on a splash pad in the park by August. In the winter, the park offers lighted cross-country skiing, ice skating and sledding hills.

Full Disclosure: Alderwoman Lisa Subeck failed to mention to colleagues that a community center already exists less than 500 feet from where she wants the city to construct a new one.

Subeck tried to get the city to purchase the building after Anchor Bank foreclosed on it in 2011. Instead, the city has negotiated with Wing-Kai Anthony Cheung, DDS, for the past year. He purchased the building in September 2012 for $318,000 and recently agreed to sell the building to the city for $455,000.

The city assessed the building at $318,000 in 2014. It appraised for $400,000 in October, according to Don Marx from Madison’s Office of Real Estate Services. He urged board members to approve the purchase.

“We want to close yet this year,” Marx said.

Stevens warned the city could purchase the building and not reach its goals of attracting high school kids to the program.

“A lot needs to happen to get children there,” she said. “It’s not a case of if you build it they will come.”