The legacy Central High School arch at the Madison College downtown campus.
In the 1970s, when Madison College proposed building a main campus near the airport, the city took the college to court.
The legal battle dragged on for almost a decade, before the matter was settled in 1982, with an agreement that the college would maintain a presence downtown. The college ended up building its Truax campus, but continued to offer classes in the old Central High School building, a block from the Capitol Square.
Fred Mohs, an attorney who has long pushed for downtown’s revival and preservation, feels a little betrayed that the college president is now recommending selling the downtown campus.
“Reluctantly and with some suspicion, we backed the construction of the Truax campus, based on the promise that the downtown campus would remain,” says Mohs, who lives just blocks from the college. “We didn’t mean for just a little bit. We wanted it to remain a fixture in downtown Madison for all sorts of justifiable civic reasons. The prime reason is this is the one location accessible to everyone in Madison without a car.”
While city officials do not want to see the campus closed, they appear unlikely to put up any kind of fight this time around.
Mayor Paul Soglin tells Isthmus that the college has to do what’s right for its students and fiscal health.
“I’ve got an opinion about what’s best for the city of Madison, which is to maintain a downtown campus,” Soglin says. “But I’m not in a positon to know what’s best for MATC and its students.”
The college’s needs, he adds, “take precedent over the city’s need to have a downtown campus.”
Earlier this month, Madison College president Jack Daniels recommended that the board sell the downtown campus, often referred to as “DTEC” within the college community. Daniels also recommended that the board end the lease at the college’s West campus, 302 S. Gammon Road (which costs almost $2 million a year), and establish a comprehensive campus in south Madison.
The college has a small campus already at the Villager Mall in south Madison, but Daniels has urged the college’s board to make a commitment to the area, which has some of the worst poverty in the city. He asked the board to decide at its May 13 meeting.
In a follow-up meeting with Isthmus last week, Daniels says that the college simply cannot afford to renovate DTEC, which consists of a 1920s-era building, a 1950s-era addition and a 1980s-era atrium.
The college has done two studies (and has commissioned a third) estimating that it would cost $24 million to $30 million to repair and renovate DTEC. Daniels adds, “$30 million is probably the better estimate to look at.”
“I’ve come to realize that some of the piping here is original,” he says. “Its life has been exceeded.”
Daniels suspects bigger expenses will be discovered once work begins on the building. The building has been valued at around $12 million.
Mohs, who has renovated downtown buildings and has sat for years on the UW System’s facilities committee, disagrees with the renovation costs. He says he’s talked to others familiar with the building and believes it could be upgraded for as little as $2 million. He believes the building studies have been produced to encourage selling.
“This is salvageable,” he says. “They’ve painted a desperate picture that isn’t the whole picture because they want to sell it to get the money to build a building in [south Madison].”
“This was built to be a school, it was built to be technical school,” he says. “It has classrooms and labs and halls and everything else that are perfectly serviceable.”
But Daniels says the building won’t meet future needs without hefty investment. “You’ve got a facility, that yes, today, we have students learning in the labs here,” he says. “But are they equipped for the future? When you look out five, 10 years, is it the kind of environment you want students learning in?”
While Daniels may be pessimistic about the opportunities of saving DTEC, he’s fired up about trying to make a difference in south Madison.
He envisions a south campus being located somewhere within the 53713 zip code, the city’s poorest. He estimates the college would need about 50,000 to 60,000 square feet of space. Its current south Madison campus, in the Villager Mall, is about 12,000 square feet.
This would be a “comprehensive campus,” providing a range of services, including enrollment services, counseling and financial aid, and science labs.
“The services that we’re talking about assist a great deal with retention, persistence and success,” he tells Isthmus. “When [those services] are not there for a population that’s impoverished, the likelihood for success is minimized.”
Mohs disagrees south Madison is the best place for such services. He argues that there are other impoverished areas in the city, and that Park Street is actually rebounding, with lots of development around.
“To locate there because you assume this is going to be the permanent location of underserved populations is flawed,” he says. “We know there are people who are poor all over the Dane County area. There’s almost no easy bus transfer station to south Madison, but it all goes to the [Capitol] Square. This is a gesture that sounds good until you think about it.”
Daniels concedes that downtown is accessible by public bus. “I can’t disagree with the fact that there are 27 buses that come downtown,” Daniels says. “But are they carrying the bulk of students that come here?”
Since Daniels made his recommendation to sell DTEC, the city attorney’s office has searched city archives looking for the agreement Madison College reportedly made with the city, promising to stay downtown.
City Attorney Michael May says his office has not uncovered any legally binding documents. “What we’ve found so far is...really a political agreement, it was not legally binding at all,” May says. “It’s pretty clear there was a deal, in the sense of an agreement that was cut that the city would no longer oppose the move to Truax, if the college would remodel and maintain a presence downtown.”
Ald. Mike Verveer says the college’s proposal “clearly violates the spirit of the agreement and no one can deny that.”
Daniels says the college would continue to have a campus downtown, just a much smaller one at a yet-to-be-determined site. He acknowledges that many people have strong emotional ties to DTEC.
“This is the most difficult decision I’ve made in 30-plus years,” he says. “We’ve gone around and met with lots of people, lots of groups. And you can listen to how they feel about the facility, the old Central High school. You can’t discount that. Yeah, we’re in downtown Madison, that’s an important issue. We’re close to the UW Madison, that’s an important issue.”
But the question for the college is: “How can we serve [the community and students] more comprehensively.”
Ald. Ledell Zellers doubts there’s much the city can do to stop the college from selling the campus. Nevertheless, she hopes it keeps the site.
“I think [selling] is a mistake on their part,” she says. “I care very much about it and would absolutely love to see it stay. I think it’s good for them and good for the downtown.”