Madison Leaders Combat South Side Problems With ‘Promise’

Madison city leaders said Friday they have a new solution to fix the city’s troubled south side.

The South Madison Promise Zone project, unveiled Friday, will allow local leaders to identify the area’s problems and propose solutions. It comes after retired Madison businesswoman Mary Burke gave $300,000 to the effort.

“We have so much talent in this city. We have so many good things going on, but we can do a lot more,” said Burke, whose family founded bike maker Trek. “What I haven’t seen is a significant improvement in how kids are being prepared to succeed from our poor neighborhoods.”

The Promise Zone plan won’t add new community services, but will hire a manager and two researchers to study the south side’s issues. It’s a better solution than the current one, which is throwing money at many initiatives that don’t work, Urban League leader Kaleem Caire said.

“We do the work every day. We don’t necessarily take a step back to do a lot of the deep planning that needs to take place,” Caire said. “Focusing on this smaller geographic area of south Madison, which is one of our highest-need areas, we think will give us a good shot.”

Caire, who said he will will not lead the Promise Zone team, said he wanted the group to have proposals ready by early fall 2012. That’s in time for Madison and Dane County leaders to consider the ideas in their respective budget processes, Caire said.

The problems in south Madison — homelessness, transportation, education, unemployment and a lack of grocery stores — can’t wait to be fixed, he said.

“We’re in a period in American history where things can’t take 10 years,” Caire said. “We have a lot of families out of work everywhere in this country. It’s hit every demographic. We have people who were wealthy that now have no money. And they would tell you, ‘We need help now.'”

City and county leaders hailed the plan as the south side’s best shot.

“This is bringing everyone together at every level,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. He added that the county pours more than $30 million annually into south side human services.

“We have to make sure the success of our city involves everyone, and that’s what’s so exciting about this project,” Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said.