On Dr. Martin Luther King Day, January 20, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new Community Resource Center in the Martin Luther King Shopping Plaza on Page Boulevard. The MLK Center, which was given to the Urban League for use rent-free by Baceline Investments, will be used as a home base for the Urban League’s 2020 census outreach efforts, employment resources, and resources for parents of Head Start children.
At the grand opening, some of those resources were on display: representatives from the census office were present, and the Head Start program was distributing toys, donated by partners at Walmart and Macy’s, to parents with young children. Walmart representatives also ceremoniously presented the Urban League with a check for $25,000.
For Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of St. Louis, this was a sort of homecoming. He is the former alderman for St. Louis’ 19th Ward, where the Community Resource Center is now situated.
“We knew that we needed more resources, we knew we needed retail services in this area. Because people here, they’re spending, but they’re not spending in their own neighborhoods, and they’re not able to have jobs in their community,” McMillan said.
“So we worked on assembling this land and creating the Martin Luther King Shopping Plaza. So I’m very proud to continue working with this community.”
He noted that when the shopping strip was first created, it was the only one in the city with 75 percent African-American ownership. Now, it hosts the Urban League’s 17th location in the St. Louis area.
McMillan said he hopes that this Urban League center, with its accessible strip mall location, might be a “national model for other cities to follow.” It is truly “in the community,” he said, with thousands of people coming through the shopping plaza each week.
Current 19th Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis and Tom DiCarlo, regional manager for Baceline Properties, worked with the Urban League to open this new location. DiCarlo teared up while speaking about Baceline’s decision to provide the space rent-free to the Urban League.
“If we don’t invest in people, there won’t be any people in the neighborhood to shop here,” DiCarlo said.
He also noted that there will soon be a healthcare facility going up in the strip mall and that security has been “increased,” including cameras that stream directly to the city’s Real Time Crime Center.
One year ago, the Urban League opened its location at Auburn and MLK for its Save our Sons and workforce development programs. Since then, McMillan announced at the MLK Community Resource Center opening, 225 men secured jobs through the programs – almost half of whom, he said, “had some type of record.” Leaders in the Save Our Sons program were present at the opening. By 2021, they hope to have graduated 1,000 men from the program.
State Senators Jamilah Nasheed connected the opening to the holiday.
“What we’re seeing today, we’re seeing Urban League step up to the plate and do the things that we knew Dr. King would have wanted us to do,” Nasheed said.
There is much more to be done.
“If you just go left, and you go down the street, Martin Luther King, and you see the deplorable conditions on that street, that tells us that we haven’t made it, that we have a long, long way to go,” Nasheed said.
“Because if we can’t fix up Martin Luther King [Boulevard], take his name off it!”
Representatives from the governor’s census office, which is partnering with the Urban League on the Census 2020 project to ensure people in undercounted areas are counted, spoke about the importance of pairing census efforts with community programs like Head Start and Save Our Sons.
April Walker, a recruiting assistant with the census office, noted that the most undercounted populations in the U.S. are babies and young children – and for each of them that is not counted, $1,300 in federal funding for that census district is lost per year for the next decade.
LaRonn Simmons, who is the census outreach specialist for the Urban League, said that in addition to outreach efforts, he will be heading a team that can help people fill out the census form if they have difficulty doing it themselves.
“We need us to count us,” Walker said.