Three years ago, CSL undertook a different approach to assessing needs in a community . We went directly to the people we served, and we asked them what they wanted, and how we could work together to achieve their goals. That simple act has changed so much about our work.
In CSL's traditional service catchment area of Eastern Jackson County, the Northwest Independence/Sugar Creek area has the highest rates of poverty indicators. Consider these statistics from the 64053 zip code (all courtesy of United States census data):
- Seven out of 10 adults have a high school diploma or equivalent
- The median household income is less than $30,000
- 37% of families live below the Federal Poverty Level, which means a family of four lives on less than $25,000 annually
CSL's Board of Directors' Program Committee set out to study what could be done to improve the economic conditions of this community. As mentioned above, thanks to community development-minded leaders, CSL went to the people in the community to get more answers. Historically, in social service-type settings, those wanting to provide services will "set up shop" and attempt to help a group of people. It certainly comes from a good place, but the thoughts and ideas of those being served aren't usually incorporated into the planning. You end up with a case where those being served don't have a voice, and have to "take it or leave it" and we never really know if what we've offered has been helpful.
So, we arranged a few listening sessions in the community, not with the community leaders, but everyday folks. No one asked us to open another food pantry. No one begged us to open a thrift shop. They stated they wanted job opportunities and training, ways to make meaningful connections with their neighbors, nice amenities, opportunities to incubate businesses or micro-business, systems to trade services and skills with one another, and much more. My colleague, Rose Hernandez, a Career Development Specialist with CSL, lives in the neighborhood, and remarked, "We don't have nice things." Jeff Anger, a CSL Board of Directors member, and principal at Fairmount Elementary School, noted that many families desired to move to areas of town that offered more cultural assets, like dining and shopping. All of this feedback was helping to chart a new course for CSL.
The former Standard State Bank building at 10725 East US 24 Highway in Northwest Independence (just west of Sterling Avenue on 24 Highway)
In June 2015, CSL purchased the old Standard State Bank building at 10725 East US 24 Highway (just west of Sterling on 24 Highway). The building was purchased for an effective price of $205,000. We had 8,800 square feet of "blank slate" on our hands, and a piece of property of 1.1 acres. This would become our palette to help work with the neighborhood to bring new opportunity to Fairmount and Sugar Creek.
CSL was awarded $250,000 in tax credits through the State of Missouri Department of Economic Development's Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP). These tax credits were used to spur redevelopment. In the time since, we have sold all our tax credits, and ended up with about $1,061,000 for the renovation of the building.
Here are the highlights of the forthcoming renovation:
- The upstairs space will be transformed into a neighborhood coffee shop. The coffee shop will serve as a chance to provide jobs and job training to neighbors. It will also serve as a cultural asset to the community.
- The coffee shop will offer food and beverage products at a variety of price points, including no-cost products for those who can't pay. Since we are located on a US highway that sees 20,000 cars a day pass by, we will have drive-through services.
- We are finalizing partnerships with local vendors (including students) that will provide food and beverage products for sale, and we are working with neighbors to ensure our menu is culturally-aligned with the rich diversity that exists in the neighborhood.
- Most of the upstairs space is flexible, allowing for community space and gathering. The old bank vault still exists and will be transformed into the "Vault Conference Room" a place for meetings, gatherings, and trainings.
- There will be offices for CSL Employment Specialists and Financial Coaches, and we have targeted opening a third micro-branch of CSL and Holy Rosary Credit Union's small-dollar lending program.
- Internally, we are allowing space on the walls to feature artwork, of which we hope much of it comes from neighborhood-based artists. There will also be live music in the coffee shop.
- Outside, we see our large footprint as having the capacity to host a neighborhood farmers' market and makers' fairs, and other community gatherings.
- Thanks to the Rotary Club of Eastern Independence, we have a downstairs, eight-station computer lab for training, skill development, and supporting micro-business in the neighborhood.
Safe deposit boxes still exist in the vault!
For me personally, it has become apparent that meaningful community development can't occur without meaningful economic development. Strong neighborhoods need strong assets like coffee shops and other places of commerce. It is the same CSL, with the same goals and same mission, but our deliverable looks different this time. In blighted areas, economic development will look a lot different than in other commercial districts. With a neighborhood median household income of less than $30,000 annually, national chains aren't likely to be attracted to this area. But, merging capitalism and philanthropy can yield creative and prosperous economic development opportunities.
The ceilings have been blown out to give an industrial look to the building. Existing duct work will be replaced with spiral ducts and raised toward the decking.
CSL has a contract for services with JE Dunn to serve as general contractor. Bid packets go out in January and we expect construction to begin in March. We are hopeful for a July 1 grand opening. We have worked with PowellCWM Architects (formerly Crowley Wade Milstead) for the last two years, and appreciate their great work. You can view (preliminary) aerial view, east and north elevation, and first floor finish plans.
The old bank teller area has been demolished to make way for a new main entrance
Throughout the process, we have worked to incorporate neighborhood residents' voices into the project, and several neighbors have served on different committees or work groups. Other neighbors have provided cleaning and construction services on the building. It has been important that we retain the neighborhood feel of the operation.
Once open, we envision a vibrant community hot spot. It will be a place to seek and find community, job opportunities, social outlets, a caring coach, and much more. Since we started our planning, Dollar General and Dollar Tree both invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into new operations just blocks from ours. Truman Medical Center is in their new clinic just west of our building, and the City of Independence has completed a planning exercise for the future of the Fairmount Commercial District. A group of passionate neighbors has hosted several block parties that have brought neighbors back to Fairmount by the hundreds. There are too many other projects and partners to list, but the future is bright for this once-struggling neighborhood. We are excited to be part of the revitalization of Fairmount!