Centro Hispano to Build $10-15 Million Center in South Madison: Plaza Transitioning

Karen Menendez Coller

Karen Menedez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano, is excited about the prospect of moving into its new center in 2024.

By Jonathan D. Gramling

Back in the early 2000s, Centro Hispano moved from the facility that is now owned by Omega School to its present facility at 810 W. Badger Road across from the Goodman South Campus because it quickly grew out of its first owned facility. And while the building was much larger, its space wasn’t conducive to a large growth in its programming and the number of people it served every year.

“Right now, we are making due with the space that we have, said Karen Menendez Coller, Centro Hispano’s executive director. “Especially now post-COVID, we can be at the schools, but we need space to be outside of the schools too. There are just a lot of dynamics that are at play. Also our workforce programs are growing. And we are really intentional about the workforce programs here being a complement what is going on at The Villager and other places. Norma has a very distinct vision for them. But we want to grow them. And we don’t even have dedicated rooms for programs here. When you look at this building that we have right now, over 70 percent of it is used for storage. Classroom space is 10 percent of the building.”

For the past decade or more a parcel of land has laid vacant. And in the last year, the Early Childhood Training Center, which was next door to the vacant land, closed leaving that plot of land available as well.

Centro Hispano has been quietly making plans to build a new center and has raised funds for that purpose. With both plots of land available

and their location adjacent to Lincoln Elementary School and the Splash Pad, Centro Hispano jumped at the chance to purchase the land. And they hired EUA Architects and lead architects John Chapman and Roberto Jaimes to help them begin dreaming about what the new center would look like.

“The theme that we are playing with right now is called, ‘The Rhythm of the Plaza,’” Coller said. “The plaza is the entire place. The rhythm is not only a room, but it is going to be the entire place. I’m excited about that. And I am excited about the possibility for light for sustainability. We want it to be a sustainable building. We have ideas about the feel of places in people’s home countries. That’s the goal. We also hope to have an outside area much larger than any possibility that we have now. Having the splash pad across the street is exciting to me. And with the school right there, it would feel like home. But again, we have to decide some basic things.”

And with Centro Hispano often being the place where immigrants from Latin America come to help them make the transition, Centro Hispano has settled on another important value to guide them in the design of the new building.

“The theme is Calli, which is the Aztec symbol for Home,” Coller said. “It’s the day on the Aztec calendar when you focus on home, nurturing relationships. And I am excited that it seems to be flowing through the relationships at Centro.”

It is important to Coller that the new center feels comfortable to the people who use it.

“Having the look and feel of Latin America is important,” Coller said. “I just want the place to feel like somewhere you can breathe. We talk a lot about healing also. Right now, we’re doing a ton of healing with our staff. We do these circles with UW-Madison one Friday per month open to the community just around healing. It’s not just trauma. It’s healing and really tapping into your resilience, assets and strengths. That’s what we want that place to be. You can just come in and feel comfortable. And it is important to have the rooms to do the kind of work that we do. I think in a city that is growing, we’re still trying to understand. We need a space where we can work and do what we want to do to move things forward.”

It needs to be a place where people feel cared for and nurtured.

“Justice Castañeda talks about housing in terms of everyone deserves to have a place to live where you can find love,” Coller said. “If it’s not a place where you can find love, that’s not fair. That’s not human. We’re starting the only AODA group in Spanish in partnership with Journey. I’m trying to create a curriculum that uses these aspects of healing. We hold it in this room, which is a youth room, but also may host the board meeting. Norma is doing workforce training that happens across the way. It’s also where we have staff meetings. People are moving things around like crazy half the time. We want to have a place where we can have efficiencies, where there can be the right technology to innovate because we deserve it, because everyone here is smart enough so that they can chase their dreams and have a space where they can do it. We’re excited about that.”

Recent developments have started to make the dream of a new center into a reality.

“We received $4.8 million from the state of Wisconsin,” Coller said. “We’re in the quiet phase of fundraising right now. The county has been incredibly supportive. They put $2 million in the budget. We have some corporate partners who have given already. Rep. Mark Pocan’s office helped secure $100,000. This roughly gets us to $9 million. We estimate the cost for the center will be $10-$15 million. The state’s gift really bumps it up so that we are at a place where we are almost there. We want to get some SEED funding to also create more of an infrastructure for Centro. I want to make sure that organizationally, we have some more senior-level positions, but all grown from within. I’m really proud of how we grow our staff from within. And I’m hoping that some of the dollars from this campaign will help us get there too. We can’t develop programs if we don’t have enough people in the big picture.”

And while Centro Hispano is slated to leave its present building in 2024 with ownership transferring to the city of Madison, Coller is concerned about how their present space will be utilized given the history and all of the people who have been served by Centro Hispano.

“We want to be involved in what happens here,” Coller said about their present building. “Part of when we start talking about opening up the campaign, if you had an idea, what would happen in this building that used to be Centro? One of the thoughts was, ‘Childcare is so needed.’ I’ve been reading a lot about childcare on the south side and how we need to ensure that there is a place for it. I have always been hopeful that something can develop here. I don’t know if it would. As this whole thing develops, I’m going to ask people, ‘What would you see happening in this space?’ I also want to talk to the city about making this be a part of the community. I don’t want this space to be gentrified. I don’t want it to be a parking ramp. This has to have some meaning too because there is a lot that happened here. So how do we create it as a part of the vision? That’s my goal with this place, that we aren’t just leaving it, but we’re going to be having it have a good future, whatever that may be and whatever the community needs.”

There is almost a spiritual side to Coller’s thinking. And the place where Centro is must have the same meaning and feeling after Centro Hispano moves to its new facility. The spirit must be unbroken.