We and They. Us and Them. Our City, These People.
That was the kind of language used by residents of Sun Prairie and language that was only narrowly avoided by certain members of the Sun Prairie City Council on Tuesday night during a session in which the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County sought one-time funding for a brick-and-mortar community center in Sun Prairie.
Several other residents spoke of the need for youth programming in the growing city.
The Boys and Girls Club of Dane County has identified the former Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church building as a potential location for a youth center that could serve as many as 250 young people every day through a daycare, teen center and other programs. The club has asked for $200,000 from the City of Sun Prairie to buy and renovate the building.
“We’ll put up about a half a million dollars, but we also want to make sure the city has skin in the game,” said former Boys and Girls Club CEO in May, when the building first became available. “They’ve been asking us for 10 years to put a Boys and Girls Club in Sun Prairie.”
The Sun Prairie City Council met last night in a “committee of the whole” to hear from the public about the Boys and Girls Club’s request.
One resident, named Jim, took to the podium during the meeting to express safety concerns surrounding the prospect of having hundreds of the type of children the Boys and Girls Club works with running rampant around once-peaceful Sun Prairie neighborhoods.
“Our concern is after hours,” he said, adding that he speaks for a large contingent of area residents. “What happens at 5 pm until 9 pm? How are these people getting to there and from there? How many of these people are going to be here who have no stake in Sun Prairie? Another issue I have is property values with these kids around. What’s our property values going to be like? We don’t know. We’re concerned about safety. This goes back to safety. What’s going to happen with all these people coming back and forth from Sun Prairie? There’s a lot of existing businesses that we already have in Sun Prairie that could use the money. We need to focus on the businesses that are already here today. Boys and Girls Club? They may do a great job with trying to keep these people off the streets and that’s fantastic. I’m all for that. However, if they don’t have the money, why should the city pay for it?”
Another Sun Prairie resident said that he’s lived in Sun Prairie all his life and is very concerned with what’s going to happen to his neighborhood.
“I’m thinking about needing a fence,” he said when illustrating how he felt about having hundreds of Boys and Girls Club kids around.
Several people, including Council Chair Bill Connors, Alder Mike Jacobs, Mayor Paul Esser and Alder Emily Lindsey harshly rebuked the notions that safety would be a concern.
Two members of the Council, Alder Al Guyant and Alder Maureen Crombie, echoed the concerns of residents, however. Guyant said that while he supports the general idea of having Boys and Girls Club come to Sun Prairie, he thinks a compromise is in order.
Guyant’s compromise would have the city fund community spaces for all types of community groups such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys and Girls Club but would have them be more localized to the areas those in need live in.
For her part, Crombie said she supported the commentary of Alder Guyant and was opposed to the Boys and Girls Club’s proposed community center.
“I haven’t forgotten the way the Boys and Girls Club treated the Fitchburg Council,” Crombie said. For the past two years, the Boys and Girls Club has vociferously fought to retain a $50,000 allocation from the City of Fitchburg that funded the operation of a youth center there. The funding was ultimately cut from the Fitchburg budget after several tense council meetings and public hearings.
The Boys and Girls Club was in Sun Prairie with a large contingent led by CEO Rod Mitchell seeking $200,000 to complete the purchase of an abandoned church where the BGCDC would have its first brick-and-mortar building in Sun Prairie. Sports programs have been running in Sun Prairie.
The BGCDC has been working on this proposal for several months and has identified what it considers a need for expansion into the fast-growing Sun Prairie area.
The proposed community center would help children have access to personalized education, technology, career training and sports as well as peer and adult mentors.
Residents in support of the Boys and Girls Club center said that these resources would create a level playing field for kids. That level playing field is vital for kids to pursue actual careers instead of dead-end jobs and having the community center would bring diverse people into the community to help it continue to grow.
Speaker after speaker stepped to the podium to talk about the needs of the children in the community that would be served by the presence of the Boys and Girls Club. Mothers talked about the sports programs used by the BGCDC that helped address the loneliness and self-esteem of their sons and daughters who participated.
Stephanie O’Brien, a Sun Prairie resident, said that the Crush basketball program coached by Boys and Girls Club Director of Teen and Athletic Programs Dan Hawk was a turning point in her son’s life.
“The Boys and Girls Club is needed in Sun Prairie not just for one demographic,” O’Brien said. “It’s where kids can go to play in a safe space and find mentors. I’m excited to have something like this in this city. This town is growing. People wanna raise their families in a town that has good schools and community centers and I want Sun Prairie to be that city.”
Dan Hawk spoke at length about the need for kids to have positive experiences like the ones BGCDC is trying to bring to Sun Prairie.
“I believe we are the sum of our experiences,” Hawk said discussing the role he’s had in taking youth out to see new places and do new things. “So I want to give kids as many new experiences as possible.”
Crush Basketball has expanded exponentially from where it started, Hawk explained, and the number of kids it serves will have a huge impact on the loitering and, frankly, bored youth around Sun Prairie who may have nothing else to do.
For his part, CEO Rod Mitchell remained stoic throughout the proceedings. Mitchell explained the financials to the Council, answered several questions about the purpose of the proposed center, and stayed above the race-related fray that unfolded during the proceedings.
“It went pretty much as expected,” Mitchell told Madison365 afterward. “I think it’s a big task for the city to make a decision like this considering it’s one of the largest requests they’ve had from us. We are certainly appreciative of their consideration.”
Ultimately, the Council President Bill Connors expressed his support of the Boys and Girls Club having the center. He was joined in support by Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser, who said that while the funding part of the proposal was something he hoped would be examined further, he supports having the Boys and Girls Club in Sun Prairie and he praised the efforts of Mitchell in getting this proposal off the ground.
The Alders opposed to the community center attempted to force a vote on the question of whether to give the funding but were struck down.
The City Council will meet next Tuesday, August 21, to discuss the funding of the community center further. It is not yet clear when a vote might take place.
Mayor Esser proposed amending the funding proposal turning it into a loan from the city rather than a one-time payout. The Boys and Girls Club would then pay back the loan over a period of years, Mayor Esser said. The Council was divided on that idea.
Rod Mitchell said that while the final decision to amend the proposal would have to go before the BGCDC Board in a special session for a vote, he personally would reject the notion citing the number of loans the BGCDC already has and the fact that they are only asking for one time funding and have no further financial needs from the city of Sun Prairie moving forward.
As for the “safety” concerns of the residents, the Boys and Girls Club routinely busses kids and families to venues the club is utilizing. None of the children who would be using the community center would be allowed to loiter outside of the center, let alone cause mischief in adjoining neighborhoods.
“I respect their concerns. Those are their concerns, their opinions,” Mitchell told Madison365. “They are definitely entitled to those. We don’t agree with those concerns. We don’t think they at all really outweigh the benefit.’