North City breaks ground on early childhood center

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Today, Urban Strategies and McCormack Baron Salazar broke ground on a new early childhood education center, just steps away from Jefferson Elementary School in the Murphy Park neighborhood.

When construction is completed in 10 months, the University City Children’s Center will operate the $11 million, 23,000-square-foot center at 1908 O’Fallon Street, which will be named The I. Jerome and Rosemary Flance Early Childhood Education Center. The center will commit 100 of the 154 slots to low-income children, from infancy to five years, who will most likely attend St. Louis Public Schools.

“I’m going to talk about this community, and you aren’t going like what you hear,” said Sandra Moore, president of Urban Strategies, at the groundbreaking ceremony held at the Cahill House. “But truth has to be the platform on which we build change.”

In the 63106 zip code, more than 90 percent of children are born to single mothers, she told the more than 50 attendees. This zip code also has the greatest increase in the number of infants being born in the entire city. Yet, it has the lowest average household income in the city – $22,597.

“Using this facility to lay a foundation at the early stage, we can apply effective early childhood education that can change the trajectory,” she said. “That has to be what this is all about.”

Moore said this center is the vision of two extraordinary men – Richard D. Baron, CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar, and I. Jerome Flance, a physician and community supporter. One day, Moore asked Baron why he cares so much about building an early childhood center.

“His answer stuck with me. He said, ‘If we don’t change things for the children, it’s all for naught,’” Moore said. “A man who builds buildings.”

Moore said she met Flance when he was 88. Before Flance died at age 98 in 2010, he helped the Flance Center’s planning team to develop a program that would address the healthy development of children. He strongly believed that educators needed to “get the babies at birth,” Moore said.

“He pushed us down this road,” Moore said. ““He worked tirelessly, stomping his feet demanding everything and usually getting everything he asked for.”

At the ceremony, Baron spoke about one of his last conversations with Flance before he died. Flance used to say he had a 28-year old brain in a 98-year-old body.

“He took my hand and said, ‘Richard I’m not going to see it now, but you have to open that center,’” Baron said. “This is for Jerry. It’s really special. I thank everyone who’s been involved and who will stay involved.”

Moore said she tapped the University City Children’s Center, a United Way-funded agency, to operate the center because of its nationally acclaimed education and training programs. The center will also serve as a training hub for childcare providers to learn best practices, through a partnership with the LUME Institute.

About half of the financial capital comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Two years ago, the St. Louis Housing Authority applied on the neighborhood’s behalf for the Capital Fund Education and Training Community Facilities Program. HUD received 94 submissions and only awarded 10 housing authority grants. HUD awarded the center’s proposal with $5 million.

McCormack Baron Salazar will chip in with $3 million of New Market Tax Credits, which are designed to strengthen the infrastructure of urban communities. For the remainder of the money, Baron and Moore fundraised among interested donors.

The center will include a three-room health suite that connects to Grace Hill, which will provide onsite immunizations and quick health screenings. Every child and their family has a health-provider link right across the street. The center will also have a living room area, where families can have group meetings and various community events, as well as a community and industrial kitchen.

Local leaders and partners dug their shovels into the site of the future $11-million facility, which is currently an empty, grassy lot blocked off by tall fences. Murphy Park mixed-income housing surrounds the lot on three sides. On the last side is the Cahill House Senior Living facility, and across the street is the Grace Hill Courtney Clinic.

Several community leaders gave remarks at the ceremony, among them included Mayor Francis G. Slay, State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, State Rep. Penny Hubbard, Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, and U.S. HUD Director James Heard.

“We should all be thinking today about five years from now what’s going to be happening with the Flance Center,” said Ron Jackson, chairman of the board of Flance Management Inc., at the ceremony. “Somebody’s got to inspect what we expect. This is a great example of what we can do if we work together.”