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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.

MATC eyes move

Madison Area Technical College's Downtown campus.

PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

It was a phenomenon I saw firsthand in the 1990s when I worked with disadvantaged children in Chicago, and one I’ve heard of many times since in other big cities:

Children are born into generational poverty and live their entire lives without ever having been to their cities’ downtowns or world-class colleges or museums, or really ever having gotten that far out of the crime- and poverty-ridden neighborhoods.

It’s always seemed to me that if you want to break that cycle, you’ve either got to regularly get folks out of their neighborhoods and into ones where they can see some of life’s better opportunities — or bring a few of those better opportunities into their neighborhoods.

Madison is no big city and its “bad” neighborhoods are a sight better than some others cities’, but in Madison Area Technical College it does have a shot at bringing better opportunities to the neighborhoods that need them.

During a public forum last week, MATC board members, Downtown stakeholders and others voiced a range of concerns about MATC president Jack E. Daniels’ plan to abandon MATC’s Downtown campus and build a new one on the South Side.

The Downtown campus is more accessible by public transit and might be more cheaply renovated than MATC officials suggest, they argued, and enrollment at MATC’s smaller, existing South Side facility has been on the decline.

They aren’t bad reasons. It’s just that they aren’t better reasons than the main reason for going with Daniels’ plan: The South Side could really use MATC.

Among the information provided to the MATC board is research into “barriers to opportunity” conducted by staff for the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission, or CARPC, a Dane County-based multi-jurisdictional group that is exactly what its name suggests.

CARPC looked at 10 factors — including poverty, unemployment, education levels and English proficiency — to get an idea of what parts of the Madison area have the most people with the kinds of socioeconomic profiles that aren’t especially conducive to success in life.

There were high-barriers-to-opportunity areas on the North and Far West sides, but they were mostly concentrated around the Beltline near Park Street and south of the Beltline east of Verona Road.

The city of Madison’s Neighborhood Indicator Project looks at some of the same factors CARPC looked at — as well as ones like access to a car — and comes to much the same conclusion: People who live on Madison’s South Side are struggling at higher rates than the city as a whole, and definitely more than those living Downtown.

A South Side MATC campus would provide education and possibly jobs in an area where people need them. It could also spur job- and wealth-creating private development.

Lisa Alexander, an associate law professor at the UW Law School, said there can be private-sector benefits to higher ed development in challenged neighborhoods, but it can also have a “gentrifying effect” that eventually makes a neighborhood unaffordable for longtime residents.

She said some universities and neighborhoods have sought to mitigate gentrification and ensure the host neighborhood benefits from the university’s presence by crafting so-called “community benefits agreements” — binding contracts that for example, require the university to hire and train local residents, buy from local vendors or create affordable housing.

So far, the college has not considered such an agreement for a South Side campus, said MATC spokesman Bill Bessette.

Daniels isn’t looking to build a new facility out in the boonies where land is cheap and plentiful (and ready for sprawl). Plans are for it to be located in an area roughly bordered by John Nolen Drive, Fish Hatchery Road and the Beltline.

The MATC campus Downtown might be more centrally located, but not necessarily more accessible — especially at rush hour — to students coming from other parts of Madison and beyond. I count nine bus routes making weekday stops at Metro Transit’s South Transfer Point. There’s also access to the Interstate from the Beltline.

Even without the MATC campus, Downtown Madison already has its share of public institutions and taxpayer-supported development — from the county and federal courthouses, to tax increment financing-spurred private development, to a thriving State Steet commercial district created in part with millions in city investment.

And then there are Downtown’s two public job- and prosperity-creating behemoths: UW-Madison and state government, without which you can bet Madison wouldn’t be showing up on all those best-of lists.

Maybe it’s time to spread such public wealth around by making MATC a major presence in some of Madison’s most challenged neighborhoods.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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