At a Dane County Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 6, the County Board approved the 2024 Dane County budget. An amendment to that budget will add $1 million for a long-term project to build a much-needed teen center in Fitchburg. For Fitchburg Alder Joe Maldonado, that was music to his ears.
“I love to see just the fact that the County chipped in here and made a significant contribution to the project. Having that collaboration is really important,” Maldonado tells Madison365. “It’s so needed. I don’t think this project can move forward without collaboration.
“The place that we’re looking at [for the Fitchburg teen center] is the Verona Road West/King James Way area. Right now, there is no programming and there’s not a significant space for youth in that neighborhood … specifically older youth,” he adds. “Many of our community centers don’t have the capacity to really do robust programming for older youths … and that’s no knock to them at all. It’s just the reality. Most out-of-school time programming right now is focused on younger kids. And there’s less staffing, space, and funding for teen programming. That’s why this teen center is so important.”
Dane County Supervisor Kierstin Huelsemann, who represents District 27 encompassing all of the northern part of Fitchburg, introduced the amendment, and tells Madison365 that it’s important that “our budgets are a reflection of our priorities and morals.”
“The teen center is a very important project for Fitchburg, in my opinion,” Huelsemann tells Madison365. “We have a lot of communities that have historically been forgotten … redlined areas, very transient areas … so there aren’t a lot of community spaces in these neighborhoods. What we’re seeing all over the country is an uptick in youth mental health issues. I think that they were on the rise pre-pandemic, but obviously, the pandemic exasperated that.
“We had a study done that was presented to the board on the youth mental health crisis,” Huelsemann adds. “And some of that report suggested increasing funding for the programs the County currently supports directed at youth, as well as obviously, supporting more programs that are being developed and providing more safe spaces for teens and youth, but specifically teenagers.”
Maldonado first brought the concept of the teen center in the Verona Road West neighborhood to the Fitchburg Common Council during the capital improvement plan and subsequent operating budget process in 2020.
“That was passed and then in 2021 and 2022, we led a community engagement study and we contracted with EQT by Design to lead a group of eight high school and middle school student interns to distribute surveys, lead focus groups, and host some community events around what a teen center should be,” Maldonado says.
The Fitchburg Teen Center Community Engagement Summary Report was completed in August 2022 by EQT by Design. The report showed overwhelming support for a teen center in Fitchburg consistent across and in accounting for race, age, and proximity to Fitchburg.
“Over 400 surveys were distributed, 75 youth were engaged in focus groups and we had two community events,” Maldonado says. “An overwhelming majority said, ‘Yes, there should be a team center.’ They included some themes that should be involved in a teen center and told us what they thought were the most important things.”
Right now in the capital improvement plan, the City of Fitchburg has tentatively committed $3 million to the construction of a new space or renovation of an existing space, Maldonado says, and the location that they are currently looking at for the teen center is Verona Road West in the King James Way area.
“Personally, I don’t think that [$3 million] is enough. I put that amount in during the pandemic before inflation. We’ll definitely need more funding,” Maldonado says. “And what I’d like to do in this feasibility study is look at what kind of other funding sources there are out there, whether it be private dollars, whether it be state or federal funding, school district funding … I think there’s a lot of different ways that it can happen, but I think all those ways need to happen together.”
The first $75,000 of that $1 million from Dane County will go towards a feasibility study for the Fitchburg teen center.
“My intention with the feasibility study is just to get the project moving and to get that process started because without doing those studies and those planning, there is no project,” Huelsemann says. “And then beyond that, I’m hoping there’s going to be collaboration when it comes to operating.”
“The feasibility study will include what a space should look like, where it should be, how much it would cost to build, and how much would it cost to operate … and also what kind of programming should take place in this space,” Maldonado adds. “So this process will engage youth-serving organizations and also look for what kind of funding mechanisms are out there.”
That study, Maldonado adds, should start within the next month or two.
“If that study shows that there’s a need and shows that there’s a capacity to do it, we would start essentially either building or purchasing a space. And that would happen probably in 2025, with the goal to be finished in 2026,” he says.
Huelsemann is excited about the prospects of a teen center in Fitchburg.
“My hope is that by providing collaboration between counties and municipalities, we can help create these safe spaces for youth,” Huelsemann says. “The economics that we are facing today are more strained and so we need to get creative and have more collaboration between municipalities, counties, and state to start really addressing those issues in a mindful, fiscally responsible way.”
“In the same way you have food deserts, you also have youth programming deserts,” Maldonado adds. “So I think this is an area where you have a lot of a lot of people living … there is a lot of dense housing in that area. I think there’s an opportunity to serve young people, not only within Fitchburg, but in the surrounding areas, as well.”