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VOL. 124 | NO. 120 | Monday, June 22, 2009

Kroc Center’s Backers Want It to Be a Gathering Spot for Diverse Groups

By Eric Smith

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From its days as a horseracing track in the latter half of the 19th century, the Mid-South Fairgrounds has a long and captivating history, including a fair share of disputes over the best uses for the sprawling property that sits in the middle of Memphis.

For all the things it has been, never was or might have been during the past 150 years, a common bond links every milestone along the fairgrounds’ timeline – people.

Whether they rooted for the Memphis Tigers or rode the Zippin Pippin, ate a Pronto Pup at the Mid-South Fair or attended the Children’s Museum, generations of Memphians have contributed a voice to the property’s storied biography.

In 2009, just a few years after the fairgrounds celebrated its unofficial sesquicentennial, a new chapter will be written as public officials and private business leaders consider moving or repositioning some of the property’s historical structures and redeveloping much of its acreage.

The Kroc Center of Memphis will feature a courtyard, left, and a performing arts theater and worship center, right, in addition to a host of other amenities. It’s all part of the facility’s goal to combine the arts, worship, recreation and education for its users.

No matter what happens with facilities such as Libertyland, the Mid-South Coliseum or Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, however, the fairgrounds will have a permanent fixture on its northwest corner with the eventual completion of the $85 million Kroc Center of Memphis. When it goes up depends on fundraising efforts.

The 100,000-square-foot building, to be built under the auspices of the local Salvation Army, will serve as an anchor of sorts, not only for the fairgrounds itself, but for surrounding neighborhoods like Orange Mound, Cooper-Young, Beltline and Chickasaw Gardens.

Much like the property it will call home, the Kroc Center and its leaders are focused on people, striving to reach them through recreation, education, the arts and worship. And nowhere is the center’s mission more evident than in its marketing theme, “Come Together.”

It’s a fitting phrase as people throughout town work to give Memphians a place where they can come together at the fairgrounds – as they have since the 1850s.

Community nexus

The Kroc Center is coming to Memphis thanks to Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Joan Kroc died in 2003, and the following year her estate unveiled a gift of $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army to create community centers nationwide. The model for these facilities was the first Kroc Center in San Diego, completed in 2002, and Kroc wanted the spirit of that facility replicated in cities everywhere.

Maj. Mark Woodcock of the Memphis Salvation Army recalled an editorial cartoon he saw following the announcement of Kroc’s bequest, in which huge moneybags were dropped from the sky onto a Salvation Army bell ringer, that ubiquitous Christmastime figure who for many is the face of the 144-year-old philanthropy.

For locations, click here.

Memphis was one of 25 cities awarded a Kroc Center, known officially as Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, in 2005. Soon after, local Salvation Army leaders secured what they considered the perfect site, a 15-acre parcel at the fairgrounds just south of Fairview Middle School and fronting East Parkway.

Because of the center’s position on such a high-profile, prominent piece of real estate, those in charge of bringing the facility to life are quick to say it is a “center for the community,” as opposed to a “community center,” a sometimes loaded phrase that connotes a shoddy, poorly managed operation, noted Kroc Center director Steve Carpenter.

And because it will be run by the Salvation Army, some believe the center will be nothing more than a shelter for drug addicts or a place that welcomes only at-risk youths.

“The fear for some people is that it will bring that population there,” Carpenter said. “What we’re doing is something different.”

What’s different about the Kroc Center, Carpenter and his team say, is not so much the amenities it will offer, such as a swimming pool, basketball court, indoor and outdoor athletic fields, performing arts venue and fitness center.

Instead, it’s the Kroc Center’s mission that separates it from similar facilities: “It will be a place where people from all walks of life come to play, share and learn together. A place where relationships are built, boundaries are erased and lives are improved,” reads Kroc Center literature.

Even the locale was designed to make the Kroc Center stand apart. When she bequeathed the money, Joan Kroc mandated that the centers, no matter what city they called home, touch a diverse collection of neighborhoods and communities, stretching across racial, economic and geographic boundaries.

“Mrs. Kroc wanted these to be in a diverse area, both racially and economically,” Woodcock said. “You tell me where in Memphis you’re going to get that. Right there is where you’re going to get that.

“We have hit the homerun with that location.”

Assembling the pot

Before the center gets built, the local chapter of the Salvation Army must raise $25 million. Once they reach that mark, $60 million from the Kroc funds will kick in as an endowment, meaning construction can begin and the center can be completed and then operated debt free.

Run by the local chapter of the Salvation Army, the Kroc Center has a Christian mission, but its leaders said they don’t want to “bombard” visitors with religion. Instead, they hope to build relationships with families who use the center.

The original deal was that if the Salvation Army could raise $25 million, then $50 million – or $2 for every dollar raised – would be donated. An extra $10 million was tacked on to the total cost in April. The money will be used first to build the facility and then to run it without the need for taxpayer help or additional revenue sources.

By press time, the Kroc Center had raised $21.2 million of its $25 million goal, although a recent announcement improved the chances of crossing the finish line. The Kresge Foundation pledged the final $1 million to the campaign as a challenge grant, so once the Salvation Army raises $24 million, the Kresge money will be awarded and the $25 million mark will be attained.

The local Kroc Center campaign is in its public phase of fundraising, which followed the private or silent phase in which donors were approached about larger gifts to the project.

Scott and Meg Crosby, co-chairs of the Kroc Center fundraising campaign, are charged with obtaining the final $2.8 million. The husband-wife duo acknowledged the difficulty in procuring money for the center, not because it isn’t a worthwhile cause but because of tough economic times as families’ budgets are stretched thin and charitable donations are cut.

“It’s nothing unique to this campaign, which is that this is a very challenging time to raise money. ...” Scott Crosby said. “Even though we’re excited about this project, the excitement is not always met with the reality of where we are economically.”

The economy presented another challenge because some perceived donations to the Kroc Center as detracting from other worthy causes, even those within the Salvation Army, such as its shelters for abused women. The Crosbys were careful to point out that wasn’t the case, that all causes can survive.

“We’re not taking money from one program and giving it to another,” Meg Crosby said. “This is above and beyond. It is difficult to lean on a core member of the Salvation Army supporters who are already supporting all the great programs the Salvation Army currently has. The positive side of that is anybody can be a donor and should be a donor because this is such a great project for Memphis.”

Goodwill with dividends

One advantage the Crosbys and the rest of the fundraising team have had when pounding the pavement or working the phones is they aren’t bound to any particular group of donors, like graduates of a school or members of a church. Instead, the Kroc Center has enjoyed broad support.

The way they put it, raising $25 million will bring an $85 million investment to the city.

“We feel like this is in a way its own mini-stimulus for Memphis,” Meg Crosby said. “The sooner we raise the money, the sooner we can break ground. Construction prices are cheap right now, so we can save money if we start; we can get the building built faster and get this thing into operation.”

Getting the Kroc Center into operation quickly has become a labor of love for the Crosbys and everyone else working on the project. Not reaching their monetary goal doesn’t seem to register in their minds – and certainly not in their hearts.

“This doesn’t have that possibility,” Scott Crosby said. “We set as a goal when we started that we were going to raise the money by October. We have a hard stop by the end of December because of the Kresge grant, so we’re going to raise the money. We will because we believe in it and it will happen.”

Spreading word about the Kroc Center’s final financial hurdle and making it happen has warranted the elements of a traditional marketing campaign coupled with new-fangled tactics.

Doug Carpenter is principal of the advertising firm of carpenter | sullivan | sossaman (CS2) and brother of Kroc Center director Steve Carpenter. (Steve Carpenter said he wasn’t involved with the selection of CS2 for the center’s advertising contract.)

Doug Carpenter said the “Come Together” campaign for the Kroc Center was crafted to tell stories that would pique the interest of a variety of people, whether they met them while going door to door in neighborhoods or through social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter.

No matter the means, one thing was important.

“In all of what we do professionally, advertising specifically, it’s about a message,” Doug Carpenter said. “I don’t believe that anybody yet – and I’ll include myself – fully realizes how significant this is going to be. Not just the structure, which is beyond compare, but the impact it will have. As we get further along, it becomes more clear to a larger constituency.”

So close, yet so far

The Kroc Center’s constituency is all of Memphis, but its core group is the center’s neighbors, those who live and work in the area, and especially those who have children attending Fairview Middle School, which will be next door to the center.

Arlinda Johnson lives down the street from the fairgrounds in Orange Mound. She has a daughter at Fairview and a younger son who will attend Fairview, and she serves as chairwoman of the school’s leadership council. Johnson said the corner where the center will be built has been “dead” and the school has suffered because of it. The Kroc Center could change all that.

The $85 million Kroc Center is a 100,000-square foot facility slated for the northwest corner of the Mid-South Fairgrounds, near the intersection of East Parkway and Central Avenue. The sprawling facility will have a swimming pool, indoor and outdoor athletic fields, performing arts center and fitness area.

“I think the school has been forgotten about. I think that will give an opportunity for the school to blossom,” said Johnson, who called the facility “awesome” after taking a virtual tour of it at www.krocmemphis.org. “It’s in a good location. It’s on a busy corner, a lot of children in that area walk to school, to and fro. It will help a lot of the children be involved with something, for everybody to come together and everybody take care of everybody. That’s what I’m hoping to see.”

Johnson isn’t alone in her desire to see the center built. As president of the Fairview parent-teacher-student organization, Beverly Anderson had but one question when she caught wind of the proposed center rising next door to the school, where her daughter is a student.

“Who is this moving next door to us? And how can it benefit our school and our students?” Anderson wondered.

Though Anderson lives in Southwind, she is keenly interested in what happens in the neighborhood because of her daughter. She already can envision the benefits of the Kroc Center’s after-school activities for students, which could number close to 600 beginning this fall when some high school students begin there.

Johnson said her daughter, an eighth-grader, will love everything about the center, from the water park to the sports fields to the after-school volunteer activities. But Johnson sees something even bigger at the center – she sees it serving as a bridge between Orange Mound and Chickasaw Gardens, between Beltline and Cooper-Young. She sees it a link that can join parts of Memphis that are disparate in color, culture, location and socioeconomics.

“I think where it is, is going to be key,” Johnson said, “because it’s connecting two almost totally different communities.”

Political actions

The reaction from other neighbors about the Kroc Center has been equally positive, although that wasn’t the case when news of the center first circulated.

Elizabeth Blondis considers herself “extremely vested” in the neighborhood as a resident and a business owner. She lives in Cooper-Young and she and her husband, Craig, are co-owners of Central Barbecue on Central Avenue.

The swimming pool and splash park should be popular with Kroc Center guests. Membership to the center will be free, but use of amenities such as the pool, fitness center and other specialty areas will be $25 a month.

Blondis earlier this year heard developer Henry Turley and Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton speak about the fairgrounds redevelopment, and she inferred that the Kroc Center – which Blondis supported in theory – could be built only if other retail components were included. In other words, she was under the impression that “we had to have a Target and all the other big-box stores and everything else that went along with it.”

Blondis didn’t mince words when sharing her feelings about turning the fairgrounds into another suburban strip mall.

“I’m not in favor of that,” she said. “I think it’s going to ruin our neighborhood, quite frankly, and all the little shops that are there. I’m totally against it, but I’m totally for the Kroc Center, because I think it will bring the communities together.”

But, as Blondis soon learned, the Kroc Center is moving forward – fundraising dependent – no matter what the city decides to with the remainder of the fairgrounds.

Instead of fretting over what happens within the fairgrounds, Kroc Center leaders are concerned with the neighboring community organizations already in place.

Katie Smythe is founder, CEO and artistic director of New Ballet Ensemble in Cooper-Young, and she likewise was leery of the Kroc Center’s forthcoming arrival. She worried that it might take funding away from her organization, which she founded in 2001. But city leaders assured Smythe that she could hold ballet recitals in the Kroc Center’s theater for free, saving her up to $8,000 per year in rental fees at other facilities.

“It could be perceived by our board or even by me that this is competition, so they’ve done a really good job of saying, ‘We want to support you,’” Smythe said. “The best way they’ll be able to support us is a performance venue …”

Smythe was even asked for feedback on the theater, and she told them the original design was too much like a chapel because its floor wasn’t “raked,” meaning it wasn’t an upward-sloping floor that provides better sightlines for theater and dance performances.

“They listened and they amended the architectural plans,” Smythe said, adding that in addition to the raked floor they added dressing rooms for performers. “To me, what that said is they’re listening to the community and want to provide what the community needs. I thought that was really smart of them.”

‘A lot going on’

When the Kroc Center finally gets built remains to be seen, but pieces such as architectural renderings and pre-construction plans are in place, and the team is raring to go. Steve Carpenter said the Kroc Center will be open to the public, and that membership will be free, although use of the fitness and swimming pool areas will cost $25 a month.

At a rate less than many fitness centers, is there concern that demand for the Kroc Center will be greater than its space?

“Hopefully that will be an issue. What we want is for that to be a problem,” Steve Carpenter said. “We want to be busy all the time and make full use of the facility. My guess is that we will. If something is so sought after and there’s not enough of it, what do you do as a community? That would be the next thing.”

But the goal for the Kroc Center is to provide more than a gym where people work out and never interact. The facility was designed to foster a litany of activities for all ages and interests while blending the four pillars of recreation, education, arts and worship.

Spearheading these efforts is Kroc Center program director Ty Cobb, whose excitement for the project is readily apparent in the way he pores over a model of the center’s multi-challenge area, explaining each feature and how it can impact kids.

The multi-challenge area, sponsored by AutoZone and the Hyde Foundation, is one of the dynamic sections of the center where many of his programs – everything from ropes course to more complex team-building exercises – will be offered to Memphis youths. The area also has a collection of stages where aspiring musicians can practice and play.

Cobb said community centers aren’t known for being hangouts on the weekends, because they’re not open or they don’t offer the activities that kids enjoy, but he envisions the Kroc Center as exactly the opposite.

“We’re flipping that,” Cobb said. “This is where kids are going to want to be.”

The Kroc Center will employ 35 people once it is fully operational, and a trio of companies will also have staff inside the facility: Memphis Athletic Ministries, Urban Youth Initiative and the C.R.O.S.S. Fire Commandos.

“There’ll be a lot of mixing,” Steve Carpenter said. “Part of it is that the mission and the goal are very similar with all these groups. It’s not like going to the mall, where you walk in and you would know that that’s a department store over there and that’s a separate over there and they don’t have anything to do with each other. When you come in, it’s the Kroc Center and there’s a lot going on.”

‘Ready to go’

The Salvation Army is a Christian organization, and the Kroc Center will have an element of worship incorporated into it, but Cobb said Kroc Center staff members won’t “bombard” people with religion at the front door. Instead, he said, the goal will be to build relationships with guests and then share their message about Jesus Christ with those willing to receive it.

Woodcock said the Kroc Center, because it will be debt free, can focus on cultivating relationships with entire families who spend time at the facility, a goal that extends from the Salvation Army’s core mission.

“We’re not satisfied with just having a relationship with those kids,” Woodcock said. “We have funding in place, we’ll have staff in place to follow up with the families of those kids and to get the whole family involved.”

Getting people throughout Memphis involved in the campaign has been successful, as homeowners have posted signs in their yards and business owners have placed signs in their storefronts that show support for the Kroc Center.

Whatever support has been shown for the center outside the walls of the Salvation Army has come from those entrenched in the Kroc Center’s marketing and fundraising campaign. As more than one of them pointed out, the city of Memphis already is realizing the goal of “coming together.”

From community groups to donors, from Facebook friends and Twitter followers, the momentum for the project is spreading. And with each dollar raised, the Kroc Center dream becomes closer to reality.

“We are so waiting,” Cobb said. “We are at the gates and ready to go.”

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