Malik and DeBorah Ahmed

Malik Ahmed, founder of Better Family Life, and his wife DeBorah Ahmed, its senior vice president of cultural programs, have been working on a cultural center housed in the former Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary building for 27 years.

Fifth Third Bank recently purchased $13 million in tax credits to assist Better Family Life Inc., a non-profit North St. Louis City community development corporation, with the renovation of a closed school building into a cultural, educational and business center.

Better Family Life purchased the former Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary building, 5417 Page Blvd., on June 29, 2005 from the St. Louis Public School District.

The estimated renovation cost of the 60,000 sq. ft building is $15 million, and expected completion is October this year. Built in 1901 by renowned architect William Butts Ittner, the historic school building inhabits a full city block in the 26th Ward.

About 27 years ago, group founders dreamed of opening a cultural center to express the history, art, culture and dance of peoples of Africa and the African Diaspora, said Malik Ahmed, founder of Better Family Life.

The Better Family Life Cultural, Educational and Business Center will also provide GED classes and skill-based job training, housing down payment assistance programs, business related seminars and motivational trainings.

“The center uniquely creates a holistic model of Better Family

Life by merging culture – the core of our values; education – the process

through which we learn and grow; and business – the resources and services

we need to be self-sufficient,” said Charlotte Ottley, board chairperson for Better Family Life. “I am so inspired that Malik and his team stayed the course and never wavered in their commitment and vision.”

In 2008, the group began environmental remediation on the building after receiving donations from individual donors and corporations, and government agencies. However until February, the group has been waiting to secure the full financing necessary to complete the project.

The project’s developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, was able to obtain the necessary new market tax credits, which are federal credits designed to spur investment into businesses and real estate in low-income communities. McCormack Baron Salazar is one of the largest recipients in the country of such credits.

“We are fortunate to be chosen as a viable project,” Ahmed said.

Smith NMTC associates and Greensfelder, Hemker, and Gale PC helped close the deal on the legal side for the tax credits. KAI Design & Build is the project’s architect.

With four floors, the center will have multiple functions, said DeBorah Ahmed, senior vice president of cultural programs for Better Family Life. The Cultural Center will include an arts and crafts studio, technology center, learning center, dance studios, BFL staff offices and office/business lease spaces. On the garden level, the center will have a café, as well as a 4,000 square feet multi-purpose hall for concerts, banquets, receptions, performances and lectures.

DeBorah said she saw that the Emerson Elementary school was on the market and told Malik, her husband, that she was clear it was the future home of the center.

“I told Malik, ‘That’s it. Wow, this building is so beautiful,’” she said. “Because of its majesty, it hits you square in the face. It was put on the National Register of Historical Places in 1992 by the school district. We are pleased to have a historic building in our neighborhood that we are doing everything to revitalize.”

Beyond renovating the school, their goal is to connect with other projects in the area as well, Malik Ahmed said.

The group’s vision is to make Page Boulevard into the same kind of foot-traffic retail center as the Delmar Loop going down to Goodfellow Boulevard, as well as rebuild the resident area, he said. The center is less than a mile south of the 22nd Ward’s Arlington Grove project, a 112-unit development which renovated another abandoned, Ittner-designed school into townhouses and garden apartments.

“We have left no stone unturned to incorporate the needs and interests of the community we serve,” Ottley said. “However, an institution is only as good as the people who support it; take pride in it; protect it; and use it to spiral a better quality of life experience for all who enter the center’s doorways. This will be the community’s home.”

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