The people, its mission of community service, and the vibrant art and murals inside and out give Centro Hispano of Dane County's modest home its soul.
But Centro's building at 810 W. Badger Road on the South Side, once a printing company, is inadequate to meet the needs of the region's fast-growing Hispanic population.
Which is why, after nearly 40 years serving the community including the past 22 at the same location, Centro has launched a $15 million fundraising campaign to build a new facility and provide seed money for programming that will make the nonprofit a more inviting, larger hub for culture, education, training and celebrations.
Preliminary concepts depict a colorful, two-story, 25,000-square foot building and large indoor/outdoor plaza with exterior water feature and underground parking on an acre of land currently owned by the city at the corner of Hughes Place and Cypress Way — kitty-corner from its current facility on the same block.
"The symbol for campaign Centro is Calli, a symbol in the Aztec calendar that is reflective of home," executive director Karen Menendez Coller said. "Home to me is a place that protects and guards but also a place of purpose. That is what the new building will feel like."
Centro hopes to complete the design and fundraising and start construction by the end of the year, and open the building in late 2023 when the nonprofit will celebrate its 40th anniversary.
The campaign for a new home is the next step in a journey that began four decades ago.
Centro was founded in 1983 by Ilda Thomas and others to provide assistance to Cuban refugees settling in the Dane County area. These refugees, known as the “Marielitos,” had been relocated to the area with virtually no support for their transition and adjustment to a new country.
Over time, Centro has become integral to the lives of many among the area's Hispanic population.
"Centro is a crucial and essential home for the Latinx community and is essential for driving a vision in Dane County that ensures a thriving Latinx community," Menendez Coller said.
"It is a place where we connect with over 100 partners in the community, dream of a vision that is inclusive of all immigrants and implement programs that support young people's resilience and identity, while focusing on strategies meant to strengthen assets in our families," she said.
The nonprofit provides one-on-one case management with bilingual/bicultural staff, often during times of crisis, Menendez Coller said. It is a home for young people to grow and learn new skills. It provides training crafted in partnership with Madison Area Technical College, the county and statewide partners.
"Centro is a place I come to learn — every day," said Benji Ramirez, who was part of Centro's youth program and is now a staff member.
Currently, Centro serves about 7,000 individuals and 2,500-plus families annually. In the past decade, it has tripled the number of staff, doubled the size of its budget and tripled the number of programs. The agency now has more than 20 full-time staff members and an annual budget of $2.5 million.
Staying in the neighborhood
But growth has strained the organization's facilities. Centro's educational and workforce programs have waitlists due to limitations of the current building, and Centro is no longer able to expand programs to keep pace with the growing Hispanic population.
The current, 18,193-square-foot facility, built in 1970, lacks sunlight, and more than half the space was designed for storage. After extensive study, organizers found it would be too costly and complicated to expand. Accessibility and parking problems also argue against staying in the same building.
"When the building was purchased, it was a significant step forward for Centro," Menendez Coller said. "Unfortunately, the layout does not allow for appropriate office space to sustain the growth of our organization .... That means more people working in a space that is not properly ventilated or with a layout that supports programming and meetings.
"With COVID it has become quite apparent that we need to have the right kind of facility for programming and community," she said. "For example, while we do work after school in the schools, with COVID this became more complicated and the need to be at Centro proved to be more essential. We pivoted with creative virtual and hybrid work, but we want to have a facility and, as an agency, a structure, that can react to the circumstance during normal times and more urgent times."
"A new facility would mean space to stretch, breathe and dream together in community, and room for our youth and families to feel at home," staff member Rachel Rosin said.
Staff want to stay in the Burr Oaks neighborhood, home to the highest concentration of Hispanic residents and low-income Hispanic residents in the city.
"Centro Hispano has been an anchor and a lifeline for the Latinx community, and a strong advocate for South Madison," said Ald. Sheri Carter, 14th District, who represents the area. "We are fortunate that Centro wanted to continue their journey in South Madison where their roots are deep."
The new building will provide better spaces for meeting and gathering, said Colleen O'Meara, senior project manager for EUA architecture and design.
"We are planning an indoor/outdoor plaza space to host a variety of community events, activities and celebrations," O'Meara said. "We were most inspired by the legacy of craft in Latino cultures. Vibrant colors are to be used highlighting diverse crafts and artforms. To balance the vibrancy we will incorporate connections to nature through warm neutrals and natural textures."
The building will include a level of underground parking and surface parking spaces.
Over the next five years, in its new home, Centro hopes to see twice the number of youth it does now, grow the number of families it works with and expand its workforce programs, Menendez Coller said.
"We have been planning and dreaming for several years, and introducing this vision to our community and knowing it will soon be a reality feels tremendous," Centro board chair Nancy Francisco-Welke said. "This will be a wonderful place and an important addition to Madison and the South Side."
Getting it built
Centro is raising money and getting significant support from the city of Madison and Dane County.
The city intends to transfer to the organization parcels at 833 and 837 Hughes Place and 2405 Cypress Way at little to no cost, city planning, community and economic development director Matt Wachter said. The city will also purchase Centro's current property, which is next to the Metro Transit South Transfer Point, 2430 Park St., at a market-rate price, he said.
The arrangement gives Centro space to build on a 1.1-acre site plus revenue from the sale of its land, and gives the city space to more conveniently provide parking for the Police Department's South District, 825 Hughes Place, and a large redevelopment site that includes Centro's current property and the Metro Transfer Point fronting South Park Street, Wachter said.
"The partnership with the city is incredibly important," Menendez Coller said. "Creating this would not have been possible without their support.
For the city, "Centro’s current lot is ideal for city acquisition in several respects," Wachter said. "There would be approximately two acres of rectangular, developable land directly on the corner of Park and Badger that would be well suited for a fairly dense mixed-use development consistent with the recommendations of the recently adopted South Madison Plan."
"This land transaction is an example of the city’s investment in South Madison and provide an opportunity for the reality of a new home for Centro," Carter said. "We want South Madison to continue to thrive both culturally and economically."
In February, Gov. Tony Evers announced Centro would get $4.8 million as part of $21 million given to Madison and the county to invest in local initiatives to boost disadvantaged communities. The money is part of federal COVID-19 relief funds.
"As with everything at Centro, we want for this campaign to be owned by the community," she said. "I want to see this building as the continuation of a movement that encourages us all to become engaged with the future of the city, county, and Wisconsin that celebrates all of us."
Wisconsin State Journal