(St. Louis Public Radio) It was a much different scene than 11 months ago at 9420 W. Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.
The parking lot of the former QuikTrip was ground zero for protests in the days following Michael Brown’s death on August 9. The burned-out shell of the store and graffiti was a reminder of the looting and violence that descended on the street.
The gas station is gone, along with the chain-link fence that surrounded it for months.
On Thursday, a crowd was seated under a big white tent on the former parking lot to hear from the president of the National Urban League, corporate leaders and a preschool chorus. The message at the groundbreaking of the new Urban League Community Empowerment Center of Ferguson was one of renewal.
"We will make sure that people in this entire region, the nation and throughout the world know that St. Louis is moving in the right direction," said Mike McMillan, executive director of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
The building will house the Urban League’s Save Our Sons program. Launched in January, it's a training program designed to help young African-American men find jobs, stay employed and get promoted. McMillan said it was a direct result of conversations the Urban League has had with young people following Brown’s death.
"We kept hearing, 'we want jobs,'" McMillan said.
The Urban League’s goal with the construction of the new building is one hundred percent minority and women participation. The Kwame Building Group is managing the construction, and CEO Tony Thompson said he hopes the project will send a message.
"There’s a lot of talk sometimes, particularly when get into technical areas of construction or engineering, 'well, we can’t find them or they don’t have the experience,'" Thompson said. "That’s simply not true. Someone just has to give us the opportunity."
The $500,000 center has received many corporate donations. QuikTrip gave the Urban League the land, as well as demolishing the building and remediating the site. Enterprise Holdings and the Taylor Family gave a combined $1.8 million and Centene Corporation donated $650,000. Another $1.5 million came from several other St. Louis companies, including Ameren, Emerson, Edward Jones, Armstrong Teasdale and several civic organizations.
CEO and president of the National Urban League Marc Morial said such broad support for the project helps heal the community.
"What you do today is that you say debate and conversation may sometimes represent motion, but building the Community Empowerment Center represents movement in a positive direction," he said.
The center will also house three other social services organizations: Provident, Better Family Life and Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
The building is expected to be completed in early 2016.