City, county, and state officials along with community organizers and coaches hosted a press conference at the City-County Building today in downtown Madison to show their support for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County’s proposal to redevelop the now-closed Sam’s Club on Madison’s west side and turn it into a regional youth sports complex and training center.

“I was prepared to go to Walmart this week and to camp out at their Arkansas location until their CEO met with me,” laughed Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson. “I decided not to do that because they are calling me back. They are paying attention. I’m thankful.

“If we could get this done, think of the number of young people we could employ and think about the professionals we could employ,” Johnson added. “The fact that hundreds of kids could have a place to come and participate in organized leagues. That’s good for them from a development perspective.”

Johnson, who said that he’s already had some conversations with Walmart officials, told the crowd at the City-County Building that if Walmart were to donate the old Sam’s Club building, it would be a 6-million-dollar gift that they could write off on their taxes. Johnson would still need to raise money for remodeling, equipment, and staff.

“If they did that, I believe that we could easily raise $1 million or $2 million within 90 days,” Johnson said. “Whatever amount of money we would need to create this space, we are raising it in 90 days. This is a huge need. I’m confident that we can secure the resources to pull this off.”

Dane County Supervisor Carousel Bayrd speaks in support of the Boys and Girls Club at a press conference today at the City-County Building.

Dane County Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, District 8, said she knows firsthand the need for space in Madison for youth to come together and play. “Such a space is so needed in our community. There is no center or space like this and there is not enough space in Madison and Dane County to serve all of the youth that want to come together, regardless of the weather, for camaraderie, for sports,” she said.

Bayrd said that it would be more than just a sports facility. “It can be used for training; it can be used for education and for community gathering,” she said. “There’s so much that can be done here. We applaud the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County for seizing this opportunity. We join them in inviting Walmart to do the right thing and be a good steward of our community. This is a unique opportunity.”

Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson

State Rep. Lisa Subeck, who represents the area where the empty Sam’s Club is now, said that the idea that the building could be vacant for a very long time was not an exciting prospect.

“The Boys and Girls Club proposal really turns that around. Not only would we not be sitting with this big vacant building on the southwest side, this building would be put to a good, community use … and, frankly, one that we badly need,” Subeck said. “The neighborhoods on the southwest side are very diverse. With that diversity, some of our neighborhoods face significant challenges. In many of the spaces, people lack parks or community gathering places.

“This is an opportunity – an opportunity that we may not get again for a large, commercial space that has become vacant,” she added. “This would be a great opportunity for Walmart to partner with the Boys and Girls Club and put this property to good use.”

West side Alder Barbara McKinney

Westside Alder Barbara McKinney said that she recently stood in the empty Sam’s Club and kept repeating to herself: “What would a sports complex look like?”

“That’s the vision I walked away from on Thursday and that’s the vision that I stand before you with and will be a part of this whole early discussion to make sure that community voices are heard,” McKinney said. “This is a positive win-win for the City of Madison and the southwest side.”

Johnson says that he’s had two phone conversations with Wal-Mart already and they put out a statement on Friday night. “If they put this group of individuals in front of their board of directors and their CEO, I cannot believe that Wal-mart would say ‘no,’” Johnson says, speaking of the group at the press conference. “Just imagine if we had a regional sports complex in our community that had a football field, a soccer field, multiple basketball courts, a batting cage. It would be a place where thousands of our young people could compete in organized sports leagues. Our young people deserve these types of opportunities in our region.

“We know that this is a long shot,” Johnson added, “but ask not and receive not. I think it would be a win-win situation for them. They are a huge philanthropic partner in this country and hopefully they will see this as a real opportunity.”