|Vol. 12 No. 21
OCTOBER 16, 2017
I remember when I was a student at UW-Madison back in the early 1970s. I took a bike ride with a friend and was amazed how quickly we
transitioned from urban to rural. Basically, we rode our bikes under the Beltline Hwy somewhere near the Dane County Coliseum and voila, we
were in rural Dane County. And we rode down rural roads that were in the town of Fitchburg amongst farmland and farm houses broken up by the
occasional country house. And then we rode our bikes under the Beltline Hwy once more and voila, we were in the city of Madison once again.
To be honest, I didn’t hear much about Fitchburg as a student at UW-Madison in the 1970s.
I didn’t really start paying attention to it until the Town of Fitchburg fought to become incorporated as the city of Fitchburg against the wishes of the
city of Madison, which had been annexing slices of development that rose up within the Town of Fitchburg’s borders. It took a ruling of the
Wisconsin Supreme Court to allow Fitchburg to incorporate as a city and repel the annexation proclivities of the city of Madison as it sought to not
become landlocked and to expand its tax base.
But the city of Fitchburg was still a relatively sleepy suburb of the city of Madison. It had development on its northern fringe that bordered the
Beltline Hwy and Verona Road and the rest was rural with clusters of subdivisions. While it had a relative amount of density on its northern
border, the apartment complexes were new and attracted a lot of young single people.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the city of Fitchburg began to develop into the prototypical suburb with large plots that held homes worth hundreds of
thousands and millions of dollars in neighborhoods like the Highlands of Seminole. The multiunit apartment complexes began to attract more low-
income families as the singles they were designed for left for the newest iteration of heaven on earth. And most of southern Fitchburg continued to
be quite rural.
About 12 years ago when The Capital City Hues was first publishing, I did an interview with Mark Olinger, then head of the Madison Department of
Planning and Development. We were discussing the history of the Allied Drive area. Olinger basically said that if you want to predict where the
next low-income hot spot will be, look at the complexes that were built 50-60 years before because they may have been designed for young
people who had no need for parks, green spaces and basic services, but their resident population changes and as they lose their original target
residents, they become economically vulnerable and as they become affordable — and the owners stop keeping up the properties — they begin to
attract more low-income families who also need the green spaces, parks and basic services that were not originally a part of the plan.
While the housing in north Fitchburg was built for single people, the density rose significantly as families moved into them with units sometimes
being the home to two families at a time, just so they could afford the rent. Leopold Elementary School on Post Road has been added on to at least
twice, if I am not mistaken, to accommodate the rapid rise in school-age children who live in close proximity to the school. Drive by Leopold at the
beginning of the school day and it’s like driving in Manhattan during rush hour. There are kids and parents and vehicles picking them up
everywhere. Many of these families are from low-income households.
The make-up of northern Fitchburg and by extension, the entire city of Madison has changed forever.
Back in 1994, I worked on a HUD-funded project in the Summerset subsidized housing project on Badger Road. The owner had basically diverted
the funds earned in the housing complex and invested them elsewhere, leaving Summerset to rapidly decline in appearance and value. It has
once been housing for UW-Madison students. It was now housing for low-income families living in an area with no services, no green spaces and
no parks. Crime was rampant.
I worked with Cephus Childs, Gloria Farr and the staff of the Madison Inner City Council on Substance Abuse, Joe McClain, project director
Lamont Jones and others to try and help the residents of Summerset develop some positive things in their lives, get hooked into educational
programs and get drug counseling and treatment if they needed it.
I feel that we had a positive impact on Summerset and I know several Madison-area leaders who were children at the complex at the time. And
we got things simmered down a bit and people had some direction in their lives. And then the complex was sold and some of the residents who
had something positive going on in their lives were allowed to stay as the complex was refurbished and turned into Parker Place. That would not
have happened if we hadn’t helped the community get under control.
I say this because I am quite perplexed with the city of Fitchburg government as it develops its 2018 budget. It wants to abrogate a long standing
gentleman’s agreement that it would provide funding to the Boys & Girls Club that was built on Jenewein Drive, a club that sits on city of Fitchburg
and city of Madison land. It wants to eliminate that funding. It also doesn’t want to consider funding youth programming for the St. James Court
area, a pocket of poverty on Fitchburg’s west side.
I live near Leopold Elementary School in a large housing complex in Fitchburg bordering the city of Madison. I witness a large police presence in
my neighborhood. There were 4-5 police cars outside of the complex this morning. The property assessments for the complex, which contains
apartments and condos, have fallen in the last 5-6 years while the property assessments for similar structures in other parts of the metropolitan
area have risen.
The city of Fitchburg is no longer that sleepy town of the 1970s or that middle and upper income suburb of the 1980s and 1990s. It now contains
areas that could turn into significant economic problems during the next 10 years if it doesn’t address them. Fitchburg is an urban city now —
whether it likes it or not — and it needs to seek its own solutions now for those problems before they fester and become unmanageable. It needs
to help its vulnerable low-income children and families receive the services they need in order to move along in their lives. Motion is good.
Stagnation leads to real urban problems.
The Fitchburg city government cannot sit around and say that it is someone else’s problem. It needs to take on Fitchburg’s future with both hands
and nip its problems in the bud lest 10-20 years from now, people look back and say that the 2017 city of Fitchburg government officials dropped
the ball on the city’s small and manageable problems.
The city of Fitchburg is losing tax dollars because of the falling property tax assessments in my part of Fitchburg and is spending extra money on
the police presence. It needs to spend reasonable money on programs like the Boys & Girls Club and the St. James Court youth programs in its
2018 budget. To do anything less is to put its head in the sand and punt its urban problems to future generations. A stitch in time saves nine. To do
nothing now will cost future Fitchburg taxpayers an arm and a leg in the future. Act now!