Imagine the east side of Kansas City without Swope Park Health Center, The Shops on Blue Parkway, KC Sun Fresh Grocery stores, and hundreds of affordable residential apartments and homes. Nearly 80,000 residents living in and around that area would have little to turn to for health services, affordable housing, and reliable food.

Emmett Pierson CEO of Community Builders

That would be the reality if it weren’t for Community Builders of Kansas City. After 31 years, Community Builders continues to own and maintain large segments of commercial and residential properties east of The Paseo, but many residents living within that community are unaware of the work the organization has done in their own backyards.

It’s a community that CEO Emmett Pierson cares about deeply. Having grown up on Brooklyn Ave. mere minutes from Community Builders’ headquarters on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.  His mother still lives in his childhood home.

Pierson uses a humble approach to leading, a principle that can be traced back to the founding members of the organization.

“I’m not trying to be seen,” Pierson said. “Just let me do what I do, bring projects off the ground, let me employ people who will make a difference and make a difference in the community.”

Pierson has been at the helm of Community Builders since returning to the organization in 2018, but his roots with the organization go back to the beginning.

The Early Years

Community Builders was founded by E. Frank Ellis in 1991. At the time, Ellis was the CEO of Swope Health Services, an organization he had founded in the basement of Metropolitan Baptist Church in 1969 with a budget of $100,000 and a handful of employees. 

His goal was to improve the health of individuals who were falling through the cracks of the healthcare system – the working poor.

“He had a huge vision for healthcare in Kansas City,” said Ken Bacchus, chairman of the Community Builders board of directors. “He knew it was beyond human health, he knew the community needed help.”

Ellis knew that to have a major impact on the health of the community, he had to address many of the shortcomings in their living environment. 

Ellis grew his organization until he knew more needed to be done to help create a foundational change for medical and community issues he was seeing.

“During that time, the 64130 ZIP code had the highest infant mortality rate in the state of Missouri,” Bacchus said. “But it was beyond that, there were insignificant places for child development, a lack of jobs, the community had a physical blight problem. So Frank knew he wanted to expand the center from where it was and wanted to set up a nonprofit to do community development work, but he knew he couldn’t do it under the health center.”

Ellis turned to Rochester “Chuck” Gaston, an eastsider by birth. Gaston was a city worker and a well-known member of the community. He’d grown up at 59th and Swope Parkway and was an advocate for the east side when he was referred to Ellis for his business acumen and influence in the community. 

In 1991, Ellis and Gaston, with the support of then-Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver, Bacchus, then a newly elected member of the Kansas City Council, and the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield, the work began. They raised $18 million to begin construction on the new Swope Parkway Health Center, The Thomas Roque Development Center, and affordable housing. The effort, called the Mount Cleveland Initiative, helped create more than a thousand jobs in the community.

With just a handful of employees in place, Community Builders was on its way, but it wasn’t without obstacles – especially funding.

“The early challenges were that they were a new organization,” Bacchus said. “They weren’t getting funding the way other organizations in the city were.” 

“If Chuck couldn’t make something work one way or another, he’d just make the table bigger,” said Bacchus. “Expanding the size of the table meant he brought more people on to make it work. He increased the size of the pot to allow others to invest. When Kansas City got too small, he went national.”

Often Community Builders had to depend a lot on major national foundations for funding support.  

“Local major foundations just didn’t necessarily play on the table of development, particularly on the east side and that’s sad,” Bacchus said. “But in the end, the duo of Chuck Gaston and Frank Ellis … when they worked together, they made it happen.” 

A New Vision:

Community Builders is organized as a nonprofit community development corporation, meaning it is a community-based organization focused on revitalizing the areas in which it is located. These organizations typically serve low-income, underserved neighborhoods that have experienced significant disinvestment.

Their beginning project was the Mount Cleveland Initiative. The initiative came together when Ellis approached neighbors from Sheraton Estates and Mount Cleveland to get their support for building a drug treatment center on a vacant lot near the two communities. In exchange for the community’s blessing, residents asked for overall investment in community resources in the area and structural improvement to prevent flooding from Brush Creek.

The Cleaver Plan, named after Emmanuel Cleaver II, who at the time was Kansas City’s first Black mayor, addressed the flooding problem. The creek, which runs east from Country Club Plaza along Blue Parkway, was a continual source of flooding for the community. The creek’s flooding had caused 25 deaths in 1979 and millions in property damage.  

Swope Health Services and the Thomas Roque Development Center were created by Mount Cleveland Initative.

The Cleaver Plan was a $114 million capital improvement program that allowed large portions along Brush Creek to be improved. In 1991, Kansas City and the US Army Corps of Engineers began efforts to deepen and widen the creek, with the federal government footing 75% of the bill.  

With the flooding problems resolved, the area along Blue Parkway was ripe for development. 

Growth of the Business

What started in the basement of a church has now grown into Kansas City’s largest urban-core developer. Since its inception, the organization has secured more than $225 million of investments in community and development initiatives in the urban core. The organization currently holds more than $100 million in assets under Community Builders’ management.

Both the Swope Parkway Health Center and the Thomas Roque Development Center continue to serve the community of the east side. Swope Health serves more than 200,000 annual visitors and the development center offers educational services to the underserved through a Head Start program, something that hadn’t existed east of Troost.

Community Builders has continually invested in affordable housing and owns and manages more than 800 apartment units among properties in Kansas City and St. Louis. 

Instead of building, buying and selling properties, Community Builders holds and maintains assets. While the flip model offers quicker profits, it incentivizes dollars over people. True to the original vision of the organization’s founders, the company’s hold-and-maintain model works to increase the value of the east side.

“We’re not trying to flip, we’re trying to drive values up,” Pierson said. “We’re trying to create value. We have to start guarding and being ruthless about the resources that urban areas and under-resourced areas have and who’s going to guard the assets that we create better than us?”

Along with residential property, their portfolio also includes multiple commercial developments.

The 69,000-square-foot Blue Parkway Office Building was the first office building east of Troost as part of the original Mt. Carmel Initiative. The office building currently houses multiple community-based organizations including the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kansas City, the District Office for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

We have to start guarding and being ruthless about the resources that urban areas and under-resourced areas have and who’s going to guard the assets that we create better than us?”

Emmett Pierson

Community Builders also continues to reinvest in its properties, with several renovations underway or planned for their existing properties. It recently completed a $5.5 million refresh of Twin Elms Apartments, a 54-unit affordable housing complex for seniors on The Paseo. Also scheduled is a $12 million refresh of 80 residences in the Mt. Cleveland Heights and Mt. Cleveland Townhomes communities, off 51st Street. The project, to be renamed “The Cleveland,” will include a newly constructed community center. 

Completed in 2005, The Shops on Blue Parkway at Kensington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., offer residents access to KC Sun Fresh Grocery Store along with national and local restaurants, service and retail businesses.

Community Builders also operates two full-service grocery stores, the KC Sun Fresh at Blue Parkway and the KC Sun Fresh on Linwood. Pierson and Bacchus both note that becoming grocery store operators was not originally part of the organization’s business plan but they responded to a need to maintain quality and reliable food security on the east side.

“We didn’t intend on it, but we own them anyway, so when someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade, so we’re making lemonade with those,” Bacchus said.

Most importantly, according to Pierson, the organization’s developments have brought hundreds of jobs to the urban core. Among those employers is CBC, with almost 200 employees.  They have a core staff of 12 in their administrative offices and maintain a staff for their property management division. 

However, the overwhelming majority of their employees work at grocery stores, where they’re well paid and receive a full benefits package. 

“The majority of them are African American. They’re from this community where we serve and live,” Baccus said.

What’s Next:

The organization has no plans to stop doing what’s brought them success so far – creating developments.

In 2020, the nonprofit bought 11 acres of land along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. with the vision of revitalizing the land for mixed-use commercial and residential space. The $84.5 million Offices at Overlook, is planned as a multi-phase project that will turn a once blighted area into an asset for the community. 

Under construction is The Rochester. Named after Gaston, this four-story, 64-unit market-rate apartment complex is located steps away from The Shops on Blue Parkway. The $12 million project offers housing options for someone who wants to remain in the community but can afford to pay for a complex with amenities. Leasing for the complex is currently available.

A new and different project for Community Builders is a planned 22-story apartment building on 10th and Main St. in downtown Kansas City. The 200-unit project, announced in March, will still provide housing in accordance with the city’s affordable housing definition. Details for this project are still being finalized with the city. 

A property owned by the organization, the Adams Mark Hotel, has recently been discussed as a potential site for temporary housing solutions for Kansas City’s homeless.  

For all of the positive growth and change seen over the decades, Bacchus worries that the same problem that has plagued the community for decades will continue to return – a lack of support.

“The Community Builders need a better opportunity to raise capital for these projects, we need money, ” Bacchus said. “We have foundations in this city that simply do not invest in Community Builders; we’re the only organization in town to provide and advance the kind of work that helps communities and we get very little support.”

Despite the struggle, Community Builders keeps finding a way to get it done. They continue to use some of Gaston’s systems. One of those is, if you have something that you’re working on there’s always a way to do it.  

“If you’re going to be successful, you better have three or four different ways to do it, because invariably something will happen,” Bacchus recalled learning from Gaston.  “It’s called options.  Chuck believed in having many ways of making things happen in our community.” 

Making it happen. That’s what Community Builders continues to do.

Jacob Martin is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.

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Jacob Martin

Jacob Martin covered news that focuses on housing and equality issues in Kansas City. Prior to joining our team, he worked as a general assignments reporter with KCUR in Kansas City. A Louisville, Kentucky...