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Warner Park Recreation Center Celebrates 20 Years

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 By Oona Mackesey-Green, Northside News
When the Madison Common Council unanimously approved $3.65 million in funding to build Warner Park Community Recreation Center (WPCRC) on Oct. 15, 1996, it was the culmination of years of organizing by Northside residents. And still, it was just the beginning. The Northside Planning Council (NPC) was responsible for raising the remaining $750,000 needed in a capital campaign — an unprecedented amount for a small, neighborhood organization made up of volunteers and just one paid staff.

Four years and $809,000 in contributions later, persistence and community commitment to a vision of a Center that would serve as a “Crossroads” for the many diverse residents of the Northside brought WPCRC into existence. The same persistence and vision, 20 years later, continues to shape the role WPCRC plays on the Northside as the Center expands — both with an addition to the building itself, and as a safe space for Northside youth.

The first issue of the Northside News was published in August/September of 1995. Above the fold — bigger news, even, than the premier of the Northside News itself — was the headline “Warner Park Center Moves Ahead! City Council Approves Initial Design on July 18.”

The early years of the Northside Planning Council, which formed in 1993 in part to facilitate the community’s involvement in the planning process for the Center, and of the Northside News — one of the main tools NPC used to build and maintain momentum around the Center — are closely intertwined with the conception of Warner Park Community Recreation Center.

NPC consisted of representatives from the various Northside neighborhood associations, a structure which grew from an earlier Northside Community Council. These representatives were able to share concerns and challenges, successes and strategize together to move forward a vision of the broader Northside community.

From the beginning, the efforts to build WPCRC were driven by residents; by the time the community recreation center was identified as a top priority in a plan for the Northside developed by residents and city staff in 1991-92, the idea was already decades old.

“The key [purpose] in the beginning — it was called Crossroads of our community. We really wanted a facility that could bring everybody together,” said Dane County Supervisor Paul Rusk, who was one of the original members of NPC.

While a community center at Kennedy Heights already existed, there wasn’t a space that would serve residents from different neighborhoods, and provide activities and opportunities for people of different ages, races, ethnicities, incomes and backgrounds.

Now, 20 years later, current WPCRC Facility Manager Terrence Thompson has made it his goal to keep the Center accountable to that vision.

“My role primarily is to really work with the community and to identify opportunities to improve services, and also in a broader context, to make sure that Northside residents have access to resources and that we’re doing everything we can to make the Northside the best place for the residents.”

Over the last year and a half, Thompson and the team at WPCRC have built on the Center’s legacy by making sure that the Center serves youth who haven’t felt welcomed in the past.

“We’ve had this laser focus on the neighborhood youth having a safe place where they can go on a daily basis,” said Thompson. “The Center has been really focused on creating that welcoming environment. It’s a place where these young folks want to be.”

Thompson became facility manager in October 2017, and quickly noticed that the $2 drop-in fee that WPCRC charged three days a week was keeping youth from using the space.

“What I was seeing is that kids would show up, we’d tell them there was a fee, they didn’t have it and we’d send them back into the community – that was the policy,” said Thompson. “It started to click when you noticed the space getting busy on the days that it’s free, and it’s empty on the days that there’s a fee.”

While $2 might seem nominal, it adds up, particularly for youth arriving at the Center after school without cash in their pocket.

“My job,” said Thompson, “is to see that and translate that into action.”

Action included months of meetings with community members and leaders and interacting with Northside youth to better identify and understand the barriers to accessing the facility. Not only did Thompson hear that youth didn’t see WPCRC as a welcoming space for them, but young people who weren’t connected to the programming available through schools and neighborhood centers didn’t have a place to spend time after school on a daily basis.

“My focus has been really to get the groups that are underserved. We’re trying to be a space for those individuals to have opportunities, to be connected and to be engaged in social activities that appeal to them.” At WPCRC, those activities include unstructured time for “general socializing and hanging out,” said Thompson. “Basketball and video games, teen nights, the 3v3 basketball tournament.”

In addition to increasing and changing offerings at the Center, Thompson led WPCRC through a process to eliminate the structural barriers — the $2 drop-in fee — to accessing WPCRC.

“I had to go through the legislative process to get that [fee policy] removed,” said Thompson. That required “buy in from my staff, buy in at the supervisor level, buy in from the WPCRC subcommittee, a proposal to the board of park commissioners, and getting them to approve the removal of the fee.”

While the process was lengthy, the fee was removed in September 2018 and youth participation at WPCRC has skyrocketed over the last year. And, because the change was made through policy, it is more likely to last — the same legislative process would have to be followed in order to reinstate it.

“It’s been just very very rewarding to see the fruits of that. The transformation that has happened,” said Thompson.

In October 1996, said Rusk, “The City approved [plans for WPCRC] and said we had to raise $750,000 and nobody thought that we could do it, but we had a newspaper.” Through donations large and small, and relationships built within and between neighborhoods on the Northside, Warner Park Community Recreation Center finally celebrated its grand opening in September 1999. “It’s one of the few examples in the city where you’ve had a collaboration between government and community volunteers that was very very inclusive, that produced a stunning project,” said Rusk.

As WPCRC wraps up another community fundraising effort, Kids Need Opportunities at Warner (KNOW), that raised $40,000 in contributions to be matched by the Madison Parks Foundation (more on that in Thompson’s regular column on page 27), community backing for WPCRC continues to drive its presence on the Northside.

“We’re so thankful that people are interested in helping us out,” said Thompson. “I’d really like to see this continue to grow over time, and continue to be a staple on the Northside, with this being a place where the kids want to go — they want to be here.”

And about that expansion — “We’re almost at maximum capacity and we can do much more, we just need more space,” said Thompson. Funds for the WPCRC building expansion continue to be included in the City’s capital budget for a future date.