Executive director Karen Bassler (left) and board chair Sue Gleason at the NPC's first landmark project, the community center at Warner Park.
Leave it to the north side to throw a party for its own planning council.
"There's tremendous pride and passion for the north side," says Paul Rusk, who represents District 12 on the County Board. Whatever the project is, he observes, once the word gets out, north-siders are definitely going to "move the agenda."
That get-up-and-go spirit is reflected in the Northside Planning Council, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year -- and continues to play a unique role in the city.
NPC was born back in 1993, later to be joined by the East Isthmus Neighborhoods Planning Council and the South Metropolitan Planning Council. "In the early '90s, the north side did not have a separate identity," Rusk remembers. "It was just seen as part of the east side. That didn't seem right." The Northside Planning Council engaged in a number of neighborhood-building projects, which also acted to "brand" the north side.
NPC's greatest hits include playing a key role in the establishment of the Warner Park Community Recreation Center (1999), Troy Gardens and Community Farm (1997 and 2001, respectively) and the Northside Farmers' Market (2005). It also brought Pierce's Market to the Northside Town Center (2006) after the Kohl's grocery left.
The Northside Planning Council has a vital continuing presence, say NPC executive director Karen Bassler and board chair Sue Gleason. They proudly assess it as the most successful of the planning councils.
"The NPC has had an impact on a whole side of town, not just one neighborhood," says Gleason.
Planning councils (essentially a coalition of neighborhood groups) don't generally provide direct services; they obtain funding and grants to help other groups complete projects. Planning councils have what Gleason and Bassler describe as more of "a convener role."
Today, the Northside Planning Council is a central feature of life on the north side. Its latest project, the new FEED Kitchens food business incubator on North Sherman Avenue, opens on Nov. 1. Overseeing the construction of a building that it will own is a new level of involvement for NPC; it also just hired a manager for the FEED Kitchens.
"The idea here was the social enterprise model," says Gleason. "Do good, but also generate some revenue back to NPC to do more good."
While the project was funded with both grants and donations, the Northside Planning Council has also taken out a few loans for it. Ultimately, FEED should be self-sustaining and even revenue-generating, says Gleason. The whole project is indicative of the NPC "thinking big, taking a bigger step," says Bassler.
"It's unusual that a coalition of neighborhood associations would advance an economic job-creation agenda," Rusk notes. Yet there's a clear sense that much of the future work of the NPC lies in promoting economic development.
Developing the business potential of the north side is a major current focus, in fact. With the Northside Business Association, NPC has formed the Northside Economic Development Coalition, which is working to highlight opportunities available and bring in more businesses. Along with the help of students and staff from the Madison Media Institute, NPC produced a video highlighting the area as an ideal spot to locate a business.
The Packers Avenue/International Lane corridor has shown the potential for development in the last year as Ale Asylum and Lakeland College have both built prominent new headquarters there. In the video, Ale Asylum's Otto Dilba praises his new site for having the "exposure you would get in a high-traffic area, but also the ability to expand."
There's vacant office space near the airport, and in general, it's more affordable than many vacant spaces in other parts of town, notes Bassler. Yet it has the obvious advantage of being adjacent to a key transportation hub as well as easy access to the Interstate. And there's vacant land available for building, too.
The Northside Planning Council hopes to promote the north side as an important zone in the local food movement, highlighting FEED Kitchens, Troy Community Farm and the farmers' market. It's lauded as a crucial environmental destination, too.
A Northside Youth Council is starting, with plans for improving youth programming, guiding volunteerism and introducing leadership skills. "It's to help kids build a voice and make a difference," says Bassler.
Another of NPC's important ongoing activities is the bimonthly newspaper the Northside News, which acts as the major communication hub.
Other possible directions include finding uses for empty buildings at Mendota Mental Health Institute and envisioning other uses for the Northside Town Center, a shopping center whose actual center spot has been vacant for almost a decade.
The Northside Planning Council's 20th anniversary bash will take place 6-9 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center, 1625 Northport Dr. It will feature snacks and a dessert potluck from north-side bakers, all previous winners of Northstar community service awards, and music from north-side musicians, including harpist Cora Wiese Moore and Jim Carrier on the banjo.