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$80 million Milwaukee sports center would provide space for people with disabilities, low incomes

August 26, 2021

Fundraising is ramping up for an $80 million nonprofit athletic center on the Milwaukee-Glendale border that would offer space to people of all income and ability levels.

The Opportunity Center proposed at 4206 N. Green Bay Ave. would have 300,000 square feet of indoor athletic space. That includes indoor basketball courts, a 300-meter running track around a turf field, a swimming pool and fitness center.

It is proposed by The Ability Center founder Damian Buchman, who has worked to create athletic spaces for people at all ability levels after he survived two bouts of bone cancer and underwent 22 knee surgeries. He is working with Franklin Cumberbatch, vice president of Bader Philanthropies Inc. in Milwaukee.

Their project would combine a sports tourism venue that attracts tournaments with a philanthropic mission of inclusion. Such facilities and sports programs are hard to access for people with low incomes or without their full physical functions.

“There’s droves of people out there that are just looking for an opportunity to be fit, active and healthy and they are just not given an equitable space to do that, an affordable space to do that, or even really a space of value,” Buchman said.

Buchman got into the project with that mission in mind. Cumberbatch is looking to encourage access to sporting programs for minority or low-income families that have trouble accessing or affording them.

“There is a segment of the community that is just cast aside,” he said. “The families can’t pay. A lot of these places where the games are played are in the suburbs or even in rural communities. Transportation is an issue, which sets families aside.”

The two recently secured approval for a $2.5 million loan from the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp., a city affiliate. That money would help the project buy its project site, a key point for donors who would consider contributing to the effort, Cumberbatch said.

With that funding secured, the two are seeking to raise $9 million overall this year, and $80 million by 2024 to pay for the center’s construction. That would mean a possible opening in 2025.

Groups supporting the project include IndependenceFirst and the Milwaukee Youth Sports Alliance.

“Milwaukee County will only become a stronger, more equitable community if each of us looks for opportunities to improve our corners of the community,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. “I applaud Frank and Damian for their pursuit of a center that will change the lives of many young people in our community, by supporting and inspiring disadvantaged youth in the pursuit of health, academic and athletic achievements.”

The center would generate money by hosting tournaments or renting space to teams. The nonprofit center would reinvest that money back into its programs, which include low-cost youth sporting leagues and “scholarships” for low-income players and organizations to use the building and its programs.

“If an able-bodied group that can afford $100 a court-hour can pay that, but the Special Olympics could not, we would subsidize their fees with the pool of dollars that come in with the sports tourism,” Buchman said.

The sports facilities will be fully accessible to players of all abilities, and will encourage mixed play between, for example, people who play basketball in wheelchairs and those with full use of their legs, Buchman said.

Buchman described their planned facility as a “community center first, but at the scale of a sports tourism venue.” It is expected to have an economic impact of up to $15 million by attracting about a million annual visitors through tournaments and team practices.

The full-time staff of about 42 people would include coaches trained to mentor people.

“We will have adults trained and ready to not just put these individuals through the physical process of play, but to understand and be empathetic to the traumas in which they live, to then heal in that space,” Cumberbatch said.