The lack of resources has deepened the wealth, educational, achievement and opportunity gaps in the city. David Cooks hopes to help close that gap with The Opportunity Center.
Cooks, the recently named president and CEO of The Opportunity Center, an $80 million sports complex that will be built on the city’s North Side, knows all about the challenges the area faces.
“I grew up on the North Side of Milwaukee not too far from where our facility will be located,” Cooks said. “I think there’s been progress, but there also has not been a lot of intentional investment in the area.
“I want to make some real change and create an economic impact that will lift the community."
The facility, which will be built on a 22-acre site at 4206 N. Green Bay Ave., will host sports and health and wellness programs while also addressing needs such as mentoring, financial literacy and job prep.
“We’re bringing services into the community that we feel are needed,” Cooks said.
Perhaps most important, Cooks said, is that The Opportunity Center has been designed not to leave anyone out, especially those who have physical or mental challenges, including disabilities.
“One of the things that sets The Opportunity Center apart from anything else is that it’s universally designed,” he said. “Anyone of any physical ability can use it.”
Cooks said creating equitable spaces in Milwaukee is crucial because many residents in the area, including youths, are underserved. Those with disabilities, many of whom live in poverty, he said, face even more challenges.
According to data from the U.S. Census, children living in poverty were more likely to have a disability. Data from the 2020 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium showed that 25% of Wisconsin adults with disabilities lived in poverty.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said the center will help create equitable opportunities for health and wellness in the area.
“The Opportunity Center will be a terrific partner to the county in achieving our shared goals by helping kids and families of all abilities play and learn,” he said.
The challenge of living with different abilities is something that Cooks, the second of four children, knows firsthand.
At age 15, a blood vessel burst in his spinal cord. The aneurysm led the high school basketball standout to lose function below his chest and become a paraplegic.
Despite his disability, Cooks went on to become an author, motivational speaker, basketball and business coach as well as a teacher, among other prominent roles.
He credits his family with helping him get through the tough years.
Now, he hopes to create a facility that helps others overcome their challenges and live healthier lives.
“What people don’t understand is that a lot of people with physical disabilities don’t die from what caused their disabilities,” he said. “It’s the inactivity that causes them to have failing health.”
Years in the making
The Opportunity Center began as a vision by co-founder Damian Buchman, a commissioner of the Milwaukee County Commission for Persons with Disabilities and founder of The Ability Center, a Wauwatosa-based nonprofit.
Eric Sullivan, a partner with Sports Facilities Companies, the organization that helped develop the project, said Buchman’s vision for the center was that the space be completely inclusive.
“That really pushed us to think creatively and think outside the box to think of solutions to challenges,” Sullivan said.
Sports Facilities Companies operates more than 35 sports facilities in 23 states and has done work internationally.
What it created with The Opportunity Center, he said, is different from other sports complexes that have designated spaces that are not universally accessible.
He gave examples of shared spaces at The Opportunity Center that include hallways where wheelchairs, strollers and people walk side-by-side, fitness centers with accessible equipment and a 300-meter track that will also be shared.
“If you design it for universal accessibility, it doesn’t mean that able bodies won’t use it – it means everyone can use it more,” Sullivan said.
The timeline for development and construction is three to five years, Cooks said. A fundraising campaign is ongoing to support the project and to raise funds for scholarships and other resources to help ensure no one is turned away, he added.
Cooks also believes The Opportunity Center will spur a revitalization in the area. He envisions hosting national and international events there.
“The facility is going to be a world class sports tourism center,” he said.
He also wants to make sure that it doesn’t become a gentrification project.
“This is a neighborhood project and if we invest in the people properly, we can have an impact,” Cooks said.
Mendez, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, graduated from UW-Milwaukee, with a double major in Journalism and Media Communications and Sociology. In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists' regional award for social columns dealing with diverse issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. Currently, he's a master's degree student at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.
His interests include scholastic research, social networking and the Green Bay Packers.