Updated at 4:50 p.m. July 26 with additional comments from the ceremony — In 2014, the burned-out Ferguson QuikTrip quickly became a national symbol of a community’s frustration over police brutality. Local and national leaders hope the building that replaced the convenience store becomes a symbol of hope.
Nonprofit, corporate and political leaders gathered Wednesday to celebrate the grand opening of the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center. It also served as the opening of the National Urban League’s annual conference, which is in St. Louis through Saturday.
“There’s a lot of places that could have gone in this space,” said Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell, whose ward contains the new center. “There could have been another business, there could have been another convenience store, but that wouldn’t have been right. This building has to mean something.”
To National Urban League president Marc Morial, the building means an opportunity to “shine a bright light” on what can happen when anger turns into action.
“Not to say that all problems have been solved, that all work has been done, but to say this is a powerful first step by all of you all to address those challenges,” he said.
The QuikTrip convenience store was one of the first buildings set on fire on Aug. 10, the night after Michael Brown was shot and killed. In addition to being a symbol, it also became a gathering place for future protests.
Those protests led to the construction of the center, and to the Save Our Sons job-training program, run by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. The agency launched the program in 2015 after hearing from protesters that they needed jobs.
Willard Donlow is one of the 400 men who have graduated since then.
“I’d like to thank all of the grassroots people, all of the marching, all of the spiritual energy that went into affecting change into Ferguson,” Donlow said. “Your energy did not go in vain, because we are here today celebrating the Empowerment Center.”
AT&T and the Regional Business Council announced Wednesday they had donated an additional $350,000 to keep the Save Our Sons operating for another three years.
The program will share space in the Empowerment Center with two other nonprofit social service agencies, including the Salvation Army. The center marks the first time the two historic agencies have teamed up in this way.
The symbolism of the building cannot be ignored, Lt. Col. Dan Jennings, the commander of the Salvation Army’s Midland Division, said. But he urged the hundreds of people in attendance to make the ceremony about more than just a photo opportunity.
“Imagine if everyone here today decided they were going to do something to change the way we operate in this region, in this area, in this city, on this block,” he said.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann