Rev. Alex Gee says the south Madison of his youth had plenty of "positive places to hang out and play." But that was roughly 40 years ago. Today, he says, "Kids here don't have enough places to just play and be kids."
And that's why the pastor of Madison's Fountain of Life Covenant Church wants to convert an abandoned gas station at 711 W. Badger Rd. into a youth soccer field and full basketball court. Eventually, he'd like to see a playground and gardens there as well.
"I want people driving by on the Beltline to see a diverse group of kids playing together here," says Gee, who is also president and founder of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. "I want to take something that has been an eyesore and turn it into something beautiful."
Gee says the Nehemiah non-profit group will eventually assume management of the space and develop programming for the community with a goal of creating a "shared history" that will allow children to learn to connect at an early age.
The project also includes plans to install seating for family and community members to enjoy the space. Additionally, Gee says he is focused on ensuring the area has proper lighting to create a safer environment after dark.
Gee says this new play area will provide a green space for kids in the south Madison community, which he says is also one of the most diverse areas in the entire state of Wisconsin.
"There's nothing like sports that has brought people together and brought walls down," Gee says, adding that he hopes the field will create a pipeline to bring kids from south Madison into the city's larger youth sports community.
Ald. John Strasser (Dist. 14) says he thinks Gee's plan is a "great idea" for the area and could be a useful resource for community organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
Fountain of Life Covenant Church purchased the property in 2012, according to city records. The gas station was recently approved for demolition by the Common Council, giving Gee the green light to move forward on the concept.
But Gee says the park needs about $100,000 to get off the ground. These funds would provide for infrastructure, water and electrical systems, lighting and team uniforms. Gee says the funding would also support upkeep for the play area for two years.
Gee is also a founder of the Justified Anger Coalition, which seeks to address racial disparities throughout the Madison community. The group recently received $100,000 from local foundations and donors to begin its work, though none of those funds will go toward supporting the park. Gee says he is hoping to launch fundraising efforts in the next few weeks.
"We're going to start by telling a story," Gee says. "We're putting our heads together to think about innovative ways to involve local businesses." Word-of-mouth buzz and community fundraisers will also play a vital role in fundraising efforts, he adds.
"We've reduced the community to something that is a zip code," Gee says of south Madison. "I'm hoping to create a place to get to know each other, where barriers come down."