FERGUSON • Each of the dignitaries on a long list of speakers made their way to the podium on Wednesday to celebrate the opening of a new jobs center here on ground once home to a QuikTrip, burned down after the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014.
"We are changing the tide today," said Lt. Colonel Dan Jennings with the Salvation Army. His organization along with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, own and operate the new $4 million facility on West Florissant Avenue.
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said the center, aimed at providing job training and other resources, "represents true hope."
For Michael P. McMillan, CEO of the local Urban League, Wednesday marked a memorable 46th birthday. A large chunk of his past year was dominated by making sure the job center opened in time to serve as the kickoff event of the National Urban League conference, which is expected to draw more than 20,000 people to America's Center downtown.
Under an air-conditioned but still steamy tent with an at-capacity crowd, a two-hour service brought speeches from some of the region's most prominent executives, including top leaders of Centene Corp., World Wide Technology, Emerson, Ameren and AT&T.
Michael F. Neidorff, CEO of Centene and board chairman of the National Urban League, said the new job center "shows how we as a community stepped up to create positive, social change."
Last year, Centene opened a $25 million service center with more than 200 employees. At a grand opening for that facility, Neidorff said he wanted to help rebuild Ferguson after hearing that some small-business owners were considering not reopening after businesses were destroyed and damaged in unrest after Brown’s death. Earlier this month, Centene Corp. said it was spending $1.3 million to open an urgent and primary care health facility inside a Schnucks grocery in Ferguson.
The new building, officially known as the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, was made possible by more than two dozen donors, which included QuikTrip. The company donated the land and removed the underground gas tanks. St. Louis County approved tax credits. More than 20 other financial and in-kind contributions were received. As a result, the new owners are carrying no debt on the building, McMillan said.
McMillan touted the project as an example of what is possible when minority workers are given a shot. At least 75 percent of contractors and employees who built the 13,500 square-feet center are African-American.
"This building is testimony that, if given the chance, this is what we can do," he said. The goal was 100 percent participation by African-Americans but McMillan said the organization could find no elevator or asphalt companies owned by blacks.
Ferguson City Councilman Wesley Bell said the QuikTrip, which was torched during the first weekend of protests after Brown’s death, symbolized the rage and anger from the death of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer.
"From this pile of debris, pile of rubble, pile of rock, what we see from these rocks is what we're here to talk about," Bell said. A center that will provide greater opportunities for young men such as Brown to receive job training and placement.
Bell quoted a partial verse from the Book of Matthew, saying: "On this rock, I will build my church." Metaphorically, he said, the rubble has been turned into justice, opportunity and empowerment, he said. A foundation for the future.
The rest of the passage, which Bell did not quote, says: "And the gates of Hades will not overcome it."
The ceremony included children from the Urban League's Head Start program singing "We Are The World" and a ribbon cutting officially opening the new center for tours.
The Ferguson center, not far from Canfield Green, the apartment complex where Brown was shot by then-Officer Darren Wilson, features an outdoor memorial to the teen. It consists of a bench on a large pad of concrete. In the concrete and tucked partially under the bench is a bronze plaque with the familiar image of Brown, a recent high school graduate, wearing a mortarboard. Mixed into the concrete are 100 shredded stuffed animals. The animals were part of a makeshift memorial that grew in the middle of Canfield Drive, where Brown died. As a result, the concrete is flecked with pink, orange and yellow.
Winding down the service, the Rev. Tommie Pierson of the Greater St. Mark Family Church offered a blessing of the Brown memorial. By that time, many in the tent had already gone outside to line up for a tour of the new facility. Several yards away, at the memorial, were Brown's parents, Lezley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. They exchanged words that grew heated and forced intervention from police, family, friends and event volunteers.
What sparked the argument was unclear, but neither parent was around when the front doors opened and a large crowd made its way inside to see the jobs center that was built as a result of the death of their son.