New cultural center to bring together diverse South Madison community

Residents of South Madison have a new reason to celebrate.

On Friday, a group of around 60 people gathered at the Fountain of Life Church for a groundbreaking ceremony for a new cultural center in the neighborhood.

The new South Madison Center for Culture & Community (SMCCC) will host lectures, debates, plays, concerts, and classes, and hopefully become a polling place, said Rev. Alex Gee, founder and President of The Nehemiah Corporation and Senior Pastor of the Fountain of Life Church.

Gee also wants to develop a relationship with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to explore ways to grow the center’s educational programs. He suggested the university use the SMCCC’s space for satellite courses, community classes, and arts performances.

The groundbreaking ceremony featured a number of prominent Madisionians, including Dane County Executive, Joe Parisi; District 14 Alderman, Tim Bruer; President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, Kaleem Caire; and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Michael Johnson.

Construction for the new center will begin July 9 and finish around January 2013, in time for Black History Month, Gee said.

The new facility is a joint venture by The Nehemiah Corporation and the Fountain of Life Church, and aims to bring the south side’s racially and culturally diverse community together and serve its educational and cultural needs. The current Fountain of Life building will be renovated and expanded to make room for the SMCCC at 633 West Badger Road.

“That zip code [53713] is the most diverse zip code in the entire state of Wisconsin, yet we have the various cultures celebrating in their own places,” Gee said. “We don’t really have places to become a true melting pot, so part of what it means to the community is a place that we can all come and celebrate culture and learn from each other...I think when that happens we respect each other more because we value what each other brings to the table.”

Bruer lauded the south side as the “Ellis Island of Madison,” where many different cultures and ethnicities have lived together since the early 1900s. “[Other] people did not understand what diversity was all about,” he said. “We on the south side are the rainbow community and we led it for generations.”

And according to attendee Becky Jacak, the cultural center will bring more people in to the area.

“I think that we can fulfill a lot of needs in the community, so it’s just going to grow and get bigger,” she said.

Despite currently living on Madison’s west side, Jacak still visits South Madison, her old neighborhood. She enjoys the diversity of the area and the teachings of the Fountain of Life Church.

As head of both Nehemiah and Fountain of Life, Gee received much credit and congratulations during the groundbreaking ceremony, as did his wife, Jackie.

“I’m looking forward to this building going up. I’m looking forward to the carpeting and the veneer and everything else that I know is going to be up in it. I’m looking forward to the music and the cultural exchange that happens up in it. And I’m looking forward to a black man and black woman leading it,” Caire said, referring to Gee and Jackie.

Nehemiah, a human services organization, will manage the center and utilize the space for its youth and family programs, but the SMCCC will also be available for use by other programs, according to Gee. It will focus on six areas: culture, education, social services and empowerment, community, justice and economic development.

Gee urged interested parties to get involved and volunteer or donate to the center by calling 608-257-2453 ext. 230 or going to their website. He said they are especially looking for people with experience fundraising or organizing events.

“We’re doing what we’re doing – building this new facility, creating this South Madison Center for Culture and Community – because we want to show young people and families in this community that a lot of good can come out of South Madison,” Gee said. “You just watch us.”