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Madison Area Technical College will move forward with a plan to leave its Downtown campus and expand on the city’s historically under-served South Side after the college’s governing board gave initial approval for the proposal late Wednesday.

Members of the MATC District Board, which deadlocked on a similar plan last year, this time voted unanimously to let the college solicit proposals from developers to lease the site of the Downtown Education Center, and begin negotiating for a new comprehensive campus on the South Side.

The college’s leaders say their proposal will lead to an explosion of educational opportunity on the South Side that could help address vast racial disparities in Dane County, while turning what they say is a faltering Downtown campus into a source of revenue.

“We must meet students where they are, and provide what they need to be successful,” MATC President Jack E. Daniels told the board. “This is our mission.”

Opponents — including several education, business and city government leaders — have countered that moving out of Downtown threatens MATC’s finances and the college’s outreach mission. They have questioned the cost of repairing the Downtown campus and say a move away from the center of Madison would make MATC less accessible to students who rely on public transportation.

Board members heard from each side during more than two hours of public comment before the vote.

Vote called early step

One trustee, Arlyn Halvorson, said he still has reservations about the prospect of leaving the Downtown campus, which sits at 211 N. Carroll St. But members noted the vote Wednesday night was an early step toward making the plan a reality, as college officials will still have to come to the board for approval of any lease agreements or other details.

“We are inviting a request for proposals — we are not ordering the moving vans to the loading dock,” Trustee Joseph Hasler said.

Moving out of the Downtown campus could lead to a major redevelopment of the block-sized piece of land just off the Capitol Square.

The proposal calls for MATC to enter into a 50-year ground lease with a developer who could renovate the Downtown Education Center or demolish it entirely for a new project.

Daniels said the college expects to have interest from local and national developers for the property. Officials say the college could take in $500,000 to 900,000 in revenue per year from the lease, a figure opponents have questioned.

MATC would keep programs in the Downtown campus through at least the 2017-18 school year as it finds a new tenant for the site.

In the second piece of MATC’s plan, the college would extend the lease at its current South Side location, a 12,000-square-foot facility in the Village on Park shopping center, through at least 2019 as it looks for a new property to buy or lease in an area roughly bounded by John Nolen Drive, Fish Hatchery Road and the Beltline. That facility will become the permanent site of a new comprehensive campus that will bring more programs and services to the South Side, officials say.

After gaining approval from its board, Daniels said the college’s next step will be to start drafting requests for proposals for the Downtown campus.

Speakers mostly in favor

Dozens of speakers who addressed the board — a diverse collection of MATC students and instructors, community leaders, city officials, South Side residents and others — mostly favored the proposal.

Mayra Medrano, president of the Dane County Latino Chamber of Commerce, said the college could provide greater educational opportunities for residents, while spurring economic development in the area.

“Madison College can be a fundamental economic catalyst for South Madison,” Medrano said.

Several speakers also expressed frustration with a political culture in Madison that they said is quick to condemn racial disparities between black and white residents in education, income and other areas, but can be slow to take concrete steps toward addressing those problems, such as investing in the South Side.

Trustee Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, who is also a Madison City Council member, said the board’s vote would break the trend of “Madison talk that has never been followed through with action.”

Opponents of the plan spoke in favor of the college expanding its campus and programming on the South Side, but asked the board not to do so at the expense of the Downtown location.

“We can and should invest more resources in the South campus, as well as maintain and invest more” Downtown, MATC instructor Steven Medall said. “It shouldn’t be an either-or proposition.”

Another speaker, Delisa Scott, echoed opponents who doubt whether the college will have the resources to adequately staff a new South Side campus with the support services students will need. Scott told board members, “A building does not a success program or successful student make.”

The college needs to do a better job of serving students in the facilities it already has, Scott said.

“Until we do that, we don’t need to think about building another campus,” she said.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.