The COPA mock-up illustration

The COPA is a proposed performing arts center planned for the Fish Hatchery Road opportunity zone, which may open in 2022.

Performing arts center sets goal of opening in 2022

A new community organization is hoping to give Fitchburg a $35 million home to host the performing arts by 2022.

Community Organizations Promoting the Arts presented the proposal to build a 70,000 square foot, three-story, multi-use performing arts event center to the Common Council at its Wednesday, Jan. 22 Committee of the Whole meeting. The proposed development would house classrooms, practice spaces, rehearsal halls and administrative offices for several performing arts-related organizations, centered around a 400-seat auditorium.

It’s the brainchild of Fitchburg-area business owner and longtime Verona resident Dale Sticha. Sticha, who has worked for over two decades as Elton John’s piano technician and tuner, spent three years developing connections with potential donors and partner organizations, several of which have signed on to the fledgling project.

The center would be located on Index Road in the area south of Post Road and east of Fish Hatchery, where COPA executive director Nancy Mistele – a former Dane County executive candidate – estimated 40,000 cars drive through daily.

Mistele said the proposed location would place 80% of the county – 246,000 area residents and 47,000 youth – within a 15-mile drive of the center.

“Fitchburg is our footprint, Dane county is our reach,” she stated.

Mistele emphasized the diversity of the area: 45% Hispanic, 30% black and 22% white.

“The most important thing is about this center is to provide accessibility to the arts for communities that don’t normally have access to this kind of facility,” she said. “Dale’s vision is to locate it here to help under-served communities.”

Mistele began working with Sticha on the project around the same time she was leaving her job in the state’s Office of Business Development, as part of the transition to the Gov. Tony Evers administration. She has a long history of working in construction, real estate, fundraising and development.

Since then, she has assembled a board of directors including a founder of the Madison Ballet, leaders from the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra and Capital City Theatre, individuals with affiliations to art programs at University of Wisconsin-Madison, the founder of One City Schools and bankers.

The board also includes one former City of Fitchburg District 3 alder, Dan Carpenter, who resigned after he moved out of his district. Mistele said Carpenter supported the project while on the council and stated she believes he will continue to be instrumental in helping alders understand the economic impact of the project.

Mike Leckrone, former UW-Madison marching band director of 50 years, is the honorary capital campaign chair for the project.

The organization seeks to raise $35 million, partly through corporate grants, for the proposed center by the end of 2020.

Mistele said she believes the center would become a cornerstone for the city, catalyzing and driving development in the Fish Hatchery Road opportunity zone, a designation that signals to developers that the city is interested in developing – or in Fitchburg’s case, redeveloping the area.

A redevelopment plan originally created in the early 2000s resurfaced in November that outlined where city staff envisioned the corridor could be redeveloped. Parts of that plan are already changing its landscape, including the senior housing development on the corner of Traceway Drive and Fish Hatchery Road and the building of a second UW Credit Union within the city’s borders.

Mistele said the center would help attract additional restaurants and hotels to the area faster.

Home for the arts

The center would have multiple uses, Mistele said.

It could offer venue space for weddings, anniversary parties, senior citizen activities and youth events, she said. But on a day-to-day basis, it would become a home for children’s and adult theater groups, ballet companies, dance organizations, after-school programming and arts-related educational opportunities and internships.

Capital City Theatre and Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra are interested in collaborating on the project.

“Someone from WYSO has been at the table for this from day one envisioning this as their future home,” Mistele said. “WYSO wants to make sure the community is behind them before committing to move.”

Fitchburg’s new Milestone Democratic School would also become a tenant in the building. The charter school is associated with the University of Wisconsin and recently received approval for a rezone on its Index Road property.

“My goal and my mission is to build this in Fitchburg and make it for Fitchburg,” she said.

Finding funding

As Sticha was often on the road touring, he knew needed help getting momentum behind the project, Mistele said.

He is the owner of Sosonic, which is located about a half-mile from the proposed center on Latham Drive, just outside the Fitchburg border with Madison. Sosonic provides equipment and production services for community music events including staging, lighting and audio systems. Sosonic hosts The Listening Room, a monthly event inviting up-and-coming local artists to perform in the rehearsal studio.

Sticha had previously purchased land elsewhere in Fitchburg with the goal of building the center there. But after enlisting the aid of Mistele, she convinced him that forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and putting the center in a more visible area would be the best way to see his dream realized.

“The reason this didn’t grow legs before now is Dale is always on the road,” she said. “He needed to employ boots on the ground.”

While Mistele is just now beginning the fundraising process, which is still in the “quiet phase,” she said the funding is starting to come in and the majority will come from private investors.

Mistele said she has been working closely with Michael Zimmerman and Joyce Frey from the city’s economic development department on the project.

“In a perfect world, we would start construction in 2021 and begin operation in 2022. We are hoping to be ready to open when the Fish Hatchery road construction is finished,” she told the alders. “Some people may say it is an aggressive timeline, but we need a goal.”

Contact Neal Patten, Community Reporter, at neal.patten@wcinet.com.