What began with an ear-splitting assault on the walls of an old church, complete with sledge hammers and hardhats, last April ended nine months later on a snowy January day with the quiet snip of an oversized scissors. With the ribbon cut, the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County opened a new center in Sun Prairie.
The club’s talking points about its new facility have been reported at length: It’s the only brick-and-mortar building the organization owns outside of Madison. It will have a preschool with space for up to 87 kids. There’s a gym with air hockey and ping-pong. Arts areas allow kids to paint masterpieces and work in multimedia and music. On-site chefs will ensure that children eat healthy meals.
It is precisely what Boys and Girls Club president and CEO Michael Johnson said it would be: “A country club for kids.”
But it almost didn’t happen. Johnson was at wit’s end on more than one occasion. He remembers the nights he tossed and turned thinking about how to overcome the barriers to opening the building, wondering if it was time to give up. Johnson said the costs of renovations — paint, plumbing, electricity, new construction — added up.
“Once I started hearing all of the faults that were happening with the building, I gotta tell you, I felt defeated a little bit,” he said. “I was like, man, $100,000 for this, $250,000 for that?”
It became almost a contest of wills, Johnson said, between his desire to see the facility finished and the variables working against that goal. The club’s opening in Sun Prairie is a symbol in a community undergoing rapid change. What once was a sleepy bedroom community is now an increasingly diverse and economically active suburb. The growing presence of people of color, drawn to the area by good schools and housing options, led to the call for amenities to serve them.
“It was the City of Sun Prairie that had been lobbying the Boys and Girls Club for years to open up and I would say Mayor Paul Esser really was the one who I would say really pushed it over the edge,” Johnson said.
When Mayor Paul Esser and his wife settled in Sun Prairie 45 years ago — people don’t just move to Sun Prairie, Esser said, they settle there — the area was nothing like it is now. The city’s population was under 10,000 and the landscape was mostly farmland.
His plan was to stay put for a year or so while he finished his business degree. Then his wife got a job working for the Sun Prairie school district.
“As we went through the course of that year, we thought, this place has everything that we wanted,” Esser said. “We came for a year and we stayed for 50.”
According to the city of Sun Prairie’s demographic and economic data, its population hovered around 4,000 in 1960, just two years after it officially became a municipality. The population estimate from 2019 was 34,926, and the state estimates that in 10 years, there will be over 40,000 people living there.
Esser, 72, said his city is benefitting from newcomers arriving from all over the country who are drawn to the area by tech jobs at Epic and Promega, along with opportunities in state government and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“They get here to Dane County and say, ‘Now, where do I want to live?’ and then they look around here,” he said. “We are a community with a lot of housing options, good schools, retail support right here, a good transportation network. And they settle in.
“That’s why Sun Prairie is growing. It’s reaping the rewards of all the planning that has gone on over many, many years. So I feel good about it. I certainly would rather be mayor in a community that’s growing than one that’s not. You know? Wouldn’t that be a crappy job?”
Growth sparked the construction of a new high school building in 2010. Token Springs Elementary and Meadow View Elementary opened in 2018 and a second high school will open in fall of 2022. Funding for that building, which will be named Sun Prairie West, was approved by residents in a $164 million referendum in April 2019. Esser said amenities like new schools lead to more growth, even if they come at a cost.
“Well it gets people anxious,” Esser said about the new schools. “And it impacts their taxes. They saw a jump this year on their tax bill and that gets people unsettled. If they’re older people like me on fixed income, they say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can afford to live here.’
“But I say to them that what’s happening around Sun Prairie is happening all over Dane County … You can go out to Rio and Fall River and the communities in the outlying areas but you won’t get the services. They don’t have the support that you have here: doctors, dentists, you don't have the retail shopping, the quality of police and fire. So yeah, you can pay less taxes but you get less.”
Scott Kugler, Sun Prairie’s community development director, said it has had steady growth since it became a city in 1958. And since the recession, its schools have played an important role in fueling “a resurgence.”
“The growth isn’t all from new housing, I think a lot of it is turnover in our existing neighborhoods,” he said. “One thing we’ve found is that it’s not new development spurring the growth, it’s our school district. It’s families moving in.”
Neil Stechschulte, the city’s director of economic development, said the city created a comprehensive plan in 2019 to respond to the changing city. It had been over a decade since the plan had been updated. Currently, the northeast and southeast sections of the city can accommodate the most growth.
New retail and other businesses — think Costco and a UW Health clinic — and the proximity to Madison have been big drivers of growth, Stechschulte said. He also talked about the evolution of Sun Prairie from a farm town to the suburban city it is now.
“We have our own economy that’s growing,” Stechschulte said. “It has gone from a bunch of farmers back in the day and an agricultural community to being a bedroom community and is attracting its own economy in terms of retail, services and businesses. Generally, we have been more affordable than a lot of places in Madison.
“That we’re located in between Madison and Milwaukee is advantageous to people going to work in those places as well,” he said.
Stechschulte said Sun Prairie's reputation for affordable living has attracted young families, many of which are families of color. But he added that the city has some holes to fill when it comes to offering culturally relevant amenities for black and brown people.
As Sun Prairie has grown, it has also diversified. In 2010, whites made up over 89% of the city’s population. That number shrunk to 80% by 2018. Schools are even more diverse, with white enrollment dropping from 72% in the 2010-11 school year to 62% in 2018-19.
Stechschulte said organizations like Sunshine Place, which offers social services and a food pantry to families in need, as well as the YMCA are helpful, but the need for a Boys and Girls Club was clear. Providing its unique set of programs is important, he said.
“Michael Johnson came out here looking to establish some programming,” he said. “He knew there were kids out here who would benefit. Boys and Girls Club had worked with our school district on individual programs like summer lunch or summer activities, so Johnson had a pretty big understanding of what the need in the community was.”
Stechschulte said he wasn’t surprised that Sun Prairie would be chosen as the location for something like a new brick-and-mortar club ahead of other suburbs like Verona, DeForest or Waunakee.
“I just think Sun Prairie is a little more affordable and we’ve still got some of that agricultural and blue-collar feel,” Stechschulte said.
But with growth comes new development and new people. Kugler describes growing pains that come with people who have become accustomed to life being one way having to adjust to new elements in what were old, familiar spaces.
“Our population is diversifying,” Kugler said. “Our mayor is embracing that change and makes sure we are accommodating and accepting … and making sure that new communities here are part of the decision-making process. I see that as positive for Sun Prairie … Not everyone receives those changes well.”
When the Boys and Girls Club began the process of choosing the site for a Sun Prairie club and deciding to move on it, there was resistance. At a 2018 City Council meeting, when the club was seeking for $200,000 to fund its renovations of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church so that as Johnson put it “the City would have some skin in the game,” several residents stepped to the podium to describe their fears using thinly veiled racist remarks and stereotypes.
Madison365 reported one resident, Jim, said that he had concerns about safety in the neighborhood with the “types of kids” the Boys and Girls Club serves.
“Our concern is after hours,” Jim said. “What happens at 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.? How are these people getting to there and from there? How many of these people are going to be here who have no stake in Sun Prairie? Another issue I have is property values with these kids around … We’re concerned about safety.”
Another resident said, “I’m thinking about needing a fence.”
Two members of the City Council, including long time member Al Guyant, suggested building a club in the community where the kids it seeks to serve come from. Guyant, who voted against the building in 2018, changed his tune, according to Johnson, and has toured the facility.
“They have pulled it off successfully,” Guyant told the Cap Times in an email. “It is a fantastic place and I was there recently.”
Sun Prairie School Board member Marilyn Ruffin said the stereotypes heard at the meeting echoed ones she heard in other settings when the Boys and Girls Club was discussed.
“I remember when they proposed it and the neighborhood had meetings about it,” Ruffin said. “My husband, son and I came out to the community conversations to talk about it and, regrettably, we heard some negative viewpoints and stereotypes of our black students and population.”
Ruffin said those remarks reflected fears and misunderstanding that residents had about newcomers to the city.
“Having this club will hopefully bridge that gap and make a new normal, and new way of our majority-white population seeing us in a positive light and not have the mentality of our black students going down a bad path and it not being good for the city,” she said.
Ruffin, who helped knock down walls with a sledge hammer during the club’s groundbreaking ceremony last spring, said the need for a Boys and Girls Club in Sun Prairie has been evident since she first moved there.
“My family and I have been in Sun Prairie for 10 years and even then there was a question of, why isn’t the Boys and Girls Club out there?” Ruffin said. “Both of my boys grew up playing ball at the YMCA, but they would also go to the Boys and Girls Club on Park Street to play ball…. To have an actual club here is really cool because we’re the first town outside of Madison to have one.”
When Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church, located at 232 E. Windsor St. among the neat, modest houses and manicured lawns of Sun Prairie, decided to relocate to a new building on the north edge of town, Esser called Johnson to tell him it might be a good spot for the club.
“Churches are not a growth industry these days and so we needed somebody to move into this facility and we really didn’t have any idea how that would happen,” Esser said. “Boys and Girls Club comes along, Michael sees the potential when all the rest of us see the problems and moves ahead with it. I mean, how fortunate is that?”
Johnson said when Esser reached out to him, he was intrigued right away.
“I remember when I first saw this church,” Johnson said during the club’s January ribbon cutting. “I saw the facility, and I saw the parking lot, and I rushed over here and there was a funeral going on!”
Turning the church into a club would be a big fundraising challenge. But Johnson has often set what he calls “big, hairy, audacious goals.” Seeing potential where others see problems is part of what has made Johnson a popular figure since he arrived in Madison in 2010.
“I was so excited about it, I called our board president and said, ‘We don’t have one penny but this is going to be our next Boys and Girls Club,’” he said.
Johnson leaned on his allies for help, including Verona real estate developer John McKenzie who, after touring the space with Johnson, agreed to donate $1 million.
“It’s an audacious idea and I think it’s inspirational,” McKenzie said. “That Michael would come up with this idea and the board would come up with this idea of taking kids from the cradle to a career, you know a daycare all the way through a career at the end, it’s something that I don’t think exists even in the other Boys and Girls Club.
“That vision alone is enormous and then to have a facility to come along like this that’s perfectly suited. I feel great and inspired.”
The Sun Prairie City Council voted to grant the club $200,000 as well as approve a conditional use permit to open the facility at 232 Windsor St. Dane County awarded more than $500,000 to the club in Federal Community Development Block Grant funds, according to a Wisconsin State Journal report.
Johnson led a series of tours designed to show off the space, especially to those who had opposed it.
“People were skeptical. There was a misconception that we were gonna have a bunch of teens running around the Boys and Girls Club, so we had some town hall meetings,” Johnson said. “We met one-on-one with people, we gave some tours for residents in the community.”
Johnson said that helped flip some feelings from skeptical to supportive.
“They would just show up asking how they could help, how they could plant flowers, how they could paint. It was amazing,” he said.
A crowd of community leaders gathered at the new club — officially named after the McKenzie family in recognition of the donation — on a snowy day in January.
“I would say 10 years worth of conversations and meetings came to fruition today,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t a walk in the park. There were many nights where I lost sleep trying to figure out how to pull this off. But when you connect with the right people and you get people to step up, it makes a big difference.”
McKenzie said that he knew he was putting a lot more than money on the line by backing the club, but during the ribbon-cutting ceremony he said he felt good about making a difference.
“And, you know what? You just put your feelings aside and do what really matters,” he said. “I just think if you have an opportunity in your life to make a difference and give back, I think that’s it’s own reward.”
Ruffin was there and marveled at the building now that it is ready to open its doors to Sun Prairie kids.
“Who wouldn’t love something like this?” she said. “It’s beautiful.”