By Julie Fancher
For years South Dallas has suffered from poor public perception. Some of the negative publicity has been earned while some has been ill-informed and unfair. Either way, many developers have avoided the area, choosing to invest in their dollars in the northern part of town.
But city leaders are working to change that. They have a vision of South Dallas that is bright and successful. Leading the charge is CitySquare, a group dedicated to fighting poverty and homelessness. They are in the process of constructing a center in South Dallas that they hope will empower those left behind in this tough economy.
“We feel like South Dallas is where the future is, where the action is going to be and we see this as a redevelopment of a very important part of South Dallas,” said CitySquare CEO Larry James, about the new Opportunity Center.
The Opportunity Center, located at 1610 S. Malcolm X Blvd., on the corner of I-30, near Fair Park, is currently under construction and expected to open in the summer of 2013. Officials say it will become the new headquarters for food distribution and employment training, as well as house services for health and wellness and social work.
“What we have here is an opportunity center where people can come and take advantage of the resources that are there, to do whatever they decide they want to do,” James said.
What Residents Can Expect
James and his team created the center to help low income families in East and South Dallas fight poverty and acquire the skills needed in an increasingly demanding and competitive workplace.
“There is no one in this market that does more to fight poverty than Larry James,” said Dallas real estate developer and close friend, Dan Hopkins.
The center is designed to resemble a college campus. The five buildings will include the Food Outreach Center, the Community Service Center, the Educational Outreach Center, the Welcome Center, and the Vocational Training Center. It will also be the home to AmeriCorp’s offices as well as Food on the Move, a program that provides after-school and summer meals to low-income children.
“We wanted to make it feel and look like a college campus,” said CitySquare’s Chief Operations Officer, Keith Ackerman.
“We think the workforce part is the most important, because a good job sustains a better quality of life. However, and unfortunately, the most popular center will be the food distribution center,” James said.
Funding for the Center
CitySquare, which has been in operation for 24 years, is dedicated to fighting poverty by distributing food to fight hunger, providing housing and health care to those in need and offering hope to those who may feel lost and neglected. It is one of the largest organizations in North Texas.
To date it has raised $9 million for the Opportunity Center, just $4.5 million short of the goal, something that surprised even James. He attributes this to the hard work and dedication of his partners, and called this a very encouraging step in completing this project.
“We have received a lot of help from donors and from people. We have a lot of financial partners and community partners and we feel very fortunate,” James said.
CitySquare is now in a full public campaign to continue raising money. There will be naming opportunities, and options for people to make donations to the center. James hopes that the Opportunity Center will be up and running, and debt-free, by this time next year.
CitySquare’s partners include PepsiCo, Work Force Solutions of Greater Dallas, the Embrey Family Foundation, Bank of America, the Meadows Foundation, the Real Estate Council, the Wagner Foundation, and several others.
Finding the Location
According to James, there has been an overwhelmingly positive response by residents to the Opportunity Center.
“We have had a really good response. Everyone wants to know what’s going on. They all seem excited. I had a great conversation with four men last week and they were eager to get involved with the center’s workforce training. Everyone is looking for work,” he said.
The location, where East and South Dallas meet, was chosen carefully after an exhaustive search. CitySquare looked at the average composite address of East and South Dallas to see where the typical person from those areas lives, in order to reach those greatest in need of the services the center can provide.
“This is a brand new development that we see as a new change agent or portal into a part of town that it’s time to stop making apologies for. We really believe in South Dallas and we want to be involved, so the location is very strategic,” James said.
The location will also provide the least amount of disturbance to residents living near the construction because it is not located in a highly residential area.
“This is the best location that would not disrupt a residence that was also accessible by highway and bus route, close to DART, and added to the community instead of disrupting it,” Ackerman said.
James described the center as the second step in a larger plan for CitySquare to fight poverty and help those in need. The initial step was the opening of the City Walk building, which was designed to take the place of the administrative and law offices as well as offer 200 units of housing for low income residents, many of whom were formerly homeless. CitySquare’s medical center is located near the City Walk building in downtown Dallas.
James sought assistance from Hopkins, the developer and owner of Dan Hopkins Company, to help with the real estate side of the project.
“CitySquare and James have great visions and this is a great opportunity to be involved in,” Hopkins said.
While James, Ackerman and the rest of the CitySquare team are in charge of fighting poverty and creating a solution to this growing problem, Hopkins has been working to secure the land, demolish the old buildings, hire the contractors and assist with the construction.
“You have a group that wants to do a good thing, but they can’t get from point A to point B, and that’s where I come in to help them move forward in the real estate development,” Hopkins said.
The site previously featured abandoned warehouses, inhabited by the homeless. It was purchased and demolished by Hopkins and his company a little more than a year ago. Construction began in January of this year, with the completion of the outer shells of the building expected to be completed by fall 2012, and the interior by spring 2013.
“We took an eye sore, a consistent problem the city was dealing with and got rid of that. Now we are providing a nice, clean, gleaming product that the city can be proud of. The investment in this zip code is a huge statement towards Dallas and the plans CitySquare has,” Hopkins said.
Billy Merendino, who owns the Merendino Bros. gas station along with his father, located across the street from the future site of the Opportunity Center, believes it will be a good addition to the community.
“It will be better than the vacant lot across the street, and it will be a good place for the people who live and spend their time and this neighborhood,” Merendino said.
Julie Fancher is a 20-year-old Convergence Journalism and Political Science major at Southern Methodist University