In the 1970s and early 1980s, Williamson Street was in decline. As the light industries and agriculture-related businesses that had been the backbone of the neighborhood’s economy historically had moved or died out, jobs had left the neighborhood. There were many empty buildings on Willy Street. For example, when La Samaritaine Coop bought their buildings in the 1000 block in 1982, the buildings were infested with mice, cockroaches and drug dealers and were being used as flop houses. The condition of the the main street was having a detrimental effect on the entire neighborhood.
Neighbors hoping to save the neighborhood founded Common Wealth in 1979. They decided on a three-pronged approach to create jobs on Willy Street: Business Development, Community Development and Housing Improvements.
Community-Building through Willy Street Fair
An effort of this magnitude would not be successful without a sense of community, so the Willy Street Fair was one of the first efforts by Common Wealth to bring the community together. The Fair has grown to be a major neighborhood event and fundraiser, now in collaboration with Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center.
Common Wealth’s first commercial development was the 1982 renovation of the old Baumann Paint store at 409 S. Few Street. Common Wealth found a tenant (Williamson Bicycle Works), assembled a financial package, and helped the owner in putting together a business plan.
In 1985, the Willy St. Coop expanded at its old location on the corner of Willy St. and Few St and Common Wealth provided business planning for the expansion.
Common Wealth has acquired tremendous expertise in business incubation and, consequently, has built a reputation for having an excellent track record. Development of its first incubator, Madison Enterprise Center (MEC), in one of the old Gisholt Machine Co. buildings on Baldwin St in 1986 made Common Wealth a Wisconsin pioneer in business incubation. Our partner, Madison Gas and Electric, owns the building and continues to strengthen opportunities for start-up businesses.
Main Street Industries, at the corner of Brearly and Main Streets (formerly the Greyhound Bus depot) created space for businesses that “graduated” from MEC. It took seven years to develop MSI due to difficulty getting financing related to ground water contamination, but the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation ultimately funded the project. MSI opened in 1996 and once again, Common Wealth was a Wisconsin pioneer in providing affordable permanent space for young businesses.
In collaboration with developer Marty Rifkin, Common Wealth co-developed the Third Lake Market at the corner of Willy and Brearly Streets. A neighborhood needs survey pointed to the need for a financial institution in the neighborhood, so Common Wealth was able to persuade Telco Community Credit Union (now Heartland Credit Union) to open a branch in the Market.
Common Wealth is an active member of the Wisconsin Business Incubation Association. We also regularly host incubator tours for business and educational groups.
Among the things Common Wealth has done for community development are establishing the Tool Lending Library; purchasing the lot on the corner of Willy and Brearly Streets and acquiring a conservation easement for the Willy St. Park; and promoting the Yahara River Parkway.
By far the most important effort, and the greatest success in community development, has been the Youth-Business Mentoring Program established in 1991. The Youth-Business Mentoring Program was sparked by local parents seeking help in finding jobs for their kids. The program now serves 135 young people between the ages of fourteen and sixteen per year, training them in job hunting skills and how to maintain a job once they get it. The teens are placed in jobs with area employers who act as mentors for them. Our Youth Programs staff also offer Employment and Financial Literacy Workshops to an additional 100 students in the area each year.
Some of the early housing successes were the renovation of four yellow houses in the 800 block of Williamson into the Ridge Side Coop, and the renovation of the Willard Knight Mansion in the 1400 block.
The Willard Knight Mansion is another instance where Common Wealth was a pioneer. The mutual housing model was developed in Europe. Common Wealth brought the model to Madison and promoted it in the Marquette neighborhood, using it for the first time with the Willard Knight Mansion. The success brought about the birth of the Madison Mutual Housing Association. Later, when a push to take the model citywide developed, MMHA split from Common Wealth to become an independent organization.
In 1986, Common Wealth began renovating a property that opened in 1988 as Vaughn Commons in the 1100 block of Williamson. This was a project to provide transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence.
Continuing its pioneer role, in 1991 the Falconer Cooperative opened at the corner of Willy and Brearly Streets, kitty-corner from the Third Lake Market. This project was one of the first to use low-income tax credits to replace a Quonset hut and two dilapidated houses. This was Common Wealth’s first experience with new construction, resulting in nine units of new affordable housing.
Another very important housing success has been the Lease-Purchase program, which started in 1998 with one family and has grown since. This program provides one-on-one counseling to low-income people who want to buy a home. They lease the building for a period of three years, during which time Common Wealth puts a percentage of their monthly rent into an escrow account that is used at the end of the three years to help with their downpayment. In addition, Common Wealth uses its connections to help the prospective homeowner get the best possible mortgage rate.
Over time, available housing stock needing renovation in the neighborhood dwindled, and single family new construction became prohibitively expensive. In 2002, Common Wealth began work on developing a sixty-unit, three-story building at the corner of Main and Thornton Streets on the Yahara River. Yahara River View Apartments has a mix of studios, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, ranging in price from $440 to $1,000 per month. Fifty-two of the units are available for people with incomes at or below 40% to 60% of county median income, with the other eight units are rented at market rate. Yahara River View Apartments opened on September 1, 2003.
To date, Common Wealth has renovated and rehabbed 139 properties now available for rent: 111 on the east side and 28 on the southwest side in Madison’s Meadowood neighborhood.
Southwest Partnership: Improving Opportunities on Madison’s Southwest Side
The Southwest Partnership (SWP) is a collaboration of Common Wealth, Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ (ORUCC), and Joining Forces for Families (JFF). This partnership formed in 2012 to address chronic poverty, mobility, and associated concerns in the Meadowood neighborhood on Madison’s southwest side. Subsequently, the SWP has expanded into neighboring areas, forging new place-based partnerships along the way.
At the outset, SWP hired an organizer focused on family stability. Hundreds of interviews and conversations were hosted to frame this work within the context of the day-to-day realities, challenges, and opportunities encountered by area residents. The SWP learned families are often besieged by the cumulative effects of poverty, crisis, instability, and burdensome child care costs. SWP witnessed many residents struggle to find and maintain employment, partly due to a mismatch in the labor market between employer needs and job-seeker skills and job readiness. SWP observed a complex and expanding matrix of family and community needs quickly overwhelm assistance available locally. The Southwest Transitional Employment Project (STEP) and Job Shop were created out of this assessment with the goal of helping adults in the neighborhood find work in living wage jobs.