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11 minute read

DIVINE INSPIRATION

By Craig M. Kaminer / Photo by Lou Bopp

If you have ever worked with Maxine Clark (Build-A-BearWorkshop®, Payless ShoeSource, Venture Stores, or May Company)or Bob Clark (Clayco) you know it is hard to keep up with them. Early morning breakfasts, coffee shop meetings, round-the-clock emails, texts, on-the-go phone calls, and rapid-fire brainstorms are succeeded by fast-paced follow-up. They‘re big thinkers, hard workers, and unstoppable once they build momentum. So recently, when I heard the two Clarks (not related) were working together to improve the outcomes of St. Louis’ 16,000+ nonprofits and close the gap on the Delmar Divide, I knew this would be a project worth featuring in Sophisticated Living.

Maxine’s leadership of this project has been extraordinary. It has taken a unique combination of vision, tenacity, smarts, and compassion to produce the Delmar DivINe. Having had a front-row seat to this project from its inception, I have seen her overcome so many obstacles – financial, regulatory, political – that would have stopped others in their tracks. Her commitment to both the wellbeing of the community and the idea of social innovation is remarkable. This project operates at many levels: transforming the nonprofit sector, supporting community development, and providing new access to health and human services. Especially during these times in St. Louis, we need tangible examples of social innovation that demonstrate forward movement, opportunity, and optimism.

St. Louis’ nonprofit sector has long been recognized as a national leader and is home to outstanding national and regional agencies, some of which have been replicated nationally and others who are working to achieve it. The region’s nonprofit sector is an economic cornerstone – employing approximately 135,000 people,10 percent of the St. Louis area workforce, and pumping $21.7billion into the economy each year -- about $6.7 billion as wages. Because of the limitations on required reporting for nonprofits and estimations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, it is highly likely we are underestimating the impact of both nonprofit jobs and total annual wages paid to those employed at nonprofits.

The story of Delmar DivINe™ (a deliberate play on the all too infamous Delmar Divide), described by Maxine as“the Cortex for nonprofits,” comes on the heels of my stories on BioSTL and Cortex in recent issues which were both the brainchildren of similar visionary leaders (William H. DanforthIII and John Dubinsky) and have put St. Louis on the global map for innovation, start-up activity, fundraising, and job creation. While St. Louis consistently ranks among the most generous cities in the United States based on charitable giving(Charity Navigator), St. Louis’ 16,000 registered nonprofits in St. Louis City and County compete for attention, charitable dollars, employees, and outcomes. “Delmar DivINe - the place -will help us work together as will the community we will create with our tenants,” says Maxine. More than anything, DelmarDivINe is about collaboration. “Besides space, we intend to bring resources to the nonprofits that they can’t afford right now.”

Nonprofit Tenants as of December 2020: Alive and Well - Asthma & Allergy Foundation - Behavioral Health Response - BJC Clark-Fox Family Foundation - Gateway Greening - Generate Health - Great Health and Wellness Pharmacy - HOME WORKS! The Teacher Home Visit Program - IFF - KIPP St. Louis Mid-America Transplant - Morning Star - Mound City Bar Association - Soul Fisher Ministries -  St. Louis Community Credit Union - St. Louis ARC - The Charity CFO - The Sophia Project - The Spot - Turn the Page STL - Washington University in St. Louis – Brown School Your Philanthropy

Since handing over the reins of Build-A-Bear in June of 2013, Maxine works as hard as ever leading The Clark-Fox Family Foundation in building upon the successes of her entrepreneurial career to infuse innovation into the nonprofit sector. The Foundation is a unique organization that concentrates on research, program development, and investments to empower the end-user and leverage one another for broader access and greater impact for our children and community. The Foundation’s strategy is to focus on the consumer, apply business acumen to nonprofits, think about issues in ways others often don’t and encourage collaboration and innovation. Maxine is gracious with her time helping a wide array of entrepreneurs -- particularly women and minorities -- nurture ideas, grow to the next level, and find the investors to make it happen.

So how did Maxine decide to undertake the Delmar DivINe project with all that she has on her plate? “One day, I was working at the KIPP Victory Elementary School in the West End when I decided to turn right instead of left on Maple Avenue, then turned on Belt to get to Delmar and came up to the former Regional Hospital and Connect Care as they were nailing the ‘for sale’ sign in the ground. I thought, ‘this could be Cortex West.’ However, Dennis Lower of Cortex was swamped at that time and suggested that I do it. So I thought ‘why not?’ and I began the research and work to bring partners together to create this amazing project in the heart of the West End -- the area on Delmar east of Skinker and west of Union -- which has become known as the Delmar Divide and perhaps the epicenter of our city’s past glory and today’s segregated reality.”

While Maxine is and has been involved in many nonprofit ventures (a few include the national board of Teach For America and the local St. Louis regional board, the board of Washington University, the board of Barnes Jewish Hospital and its Goldfarb School of Nursing, the board of Beyond Housing and Parents As Teachers, the national board of PBS and the local Nine Network of Public Media board of directors where she is a recent past board chair), I was intrigued with how and why she immediately thought of Delmar DivINe in the middle of the Delmar Divide. To the founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997 with its more than 400 stores, “It is all about merchandising—a store, a mall, a street, a neighborhood. A better-merchandised store attracts people in to buy and the same is true for a neighborhood. People want to live where it is attractive, have access to shops, food, and wellbeing. That is what I saw when I started working in the 63112 zip code and we opened the KIPP School in 2014. I saw a great neighborhood with potential that needed some ‘merchandising’ and a plan that included the neighborhood’s brainpower.”

While she admits that a brand alone is not what will make this successful in the long run, Maxine reflects that “I wanted to find a name that would change the way we looked at Delmar as a bridge, not a divide. In doing my research on the history of this neighborhood, I thought that we could just change the ‘d’ to an ‘n’ and then ‘in’ could be about investment, innovation, and inclusion rather than a divide. The name has caught on! The logotype is art deco-like -- the main building was built just around the time of the art deco period -- so we are paying a little homage to the time period.”

Delmar DivINe will be a place, a district, an ecosystem, and a community bright spot which will maximize the efficiency, effectiveness, and impact of the nonprofit sector in the St. Louis region while simultaneously being a catalyst for the transformation of nearby neighborhoods. It will be the headquarters for 30 nonprofit organizations and will welcome other nonprofits to its events and select programs in the future. Beyond space for nonprofit tenants, there will be dedicated services for those tenants, community meeting space, 150 residential units, and a cafe for the tenants, residents, and surrounding community. Of the total $110-million two-phase project, more than $13 million of the $15 million total private investment has been raised to date. The balance is being funded with New Market Tax Credits, Historic Tax Credits, and a bank loan. With phase one of construction well underway, an opening date is scheduled for Fall 2021.

Delmar DivINe is a powerful concept that could be a gamechanger for nonprofits, a real estate breakthrough bridging The Loop and the CWE, and an innovation hub on par with BioSTL, Cortex, and T-Rex. And in true Maxine Clark fashion, the partnerships with Washington University, Saint Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis and many other institutions will benefit from the collaborative spirit of Delmar DivINe. “Our Center for Human Services Leadership at Delmar DivINe, developed in partnership with the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, will allow us to work together to train staff and boards to better support the agencies, including help with succession planning and developing talent for internal promotions,” she adds. In addition to organizational capacity-building, the Center’s staff will be building animators - bringing people together and catalyzing collaboration to help transform a real estate project into a dynamic community.

Jorge Riopedre, executive director of Delmar DivINe, shares Maxine’s enthusiasm for what the project can achieve. “Delmar DivINe, its partners, and its community of nonprofits are committed to creating a more equitable future for the city of St. Louis. Working together, especially with the residents of the West End neighborhood where our campus is located, we have the opportunity to drive economic activity and engage some of the region’s best charitable agencies to improve the prospects of those who live and work in North St. Louis.”

For Bob Clark, who has grown Clayco into a $3 billion+ design, construction, and commercial real estate company throughout the United States, the last thing he was looking for was another venture. On any day he oversees dozens of world-class projects for companies such as Pfizer, RGA, Amazon, and Centene. Whether it is Bob’s passion to see St. Louis achieve its full potential or that he succumbed to the persuasive appeal of Maxine’s vision, Bob jumped in with both feet. According to Maxine, “Bob has a teddy bear heart! It’s his superpower -- his love of his family and his community!” And that says a lot coming from the Chief Executive Bear herself.

“I’m sure that Maxine came across a kernel of this idea by seeing other projects around the country,” recounts Bob. “Before I was involved, she spoke to Hank Webber, who as Executive Vice Chancellor, oversees a wide variety of administrative and external affairs at Washington University. Shortly thereafter, Hank called me to see if I would take a look at this project. He said he was pretty enthused about it but because of the complexity of the deal, he didn’t know if he had time to really study it. So, I met with Maxine, and then I looked at the property. At first, I said, ‘this is crazy.’ And then Maxine’s enthusiasm just became contagious. Next, we met with the City and the Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) and learned there was a competing proposal to put a flea market on that site, which in my opinion would have been terrible for the neighborhood.”

“Honestly, I was motivated to keep that from happening,” continues Bob. “One thing led to another. Delmar DivINe is not a project where Clayco will make money. In fact, we’re going to spend money on it. But I believe that it could be a catalyst for change. There are other people who have interests in the neighborhood too, such as Jeff Tegethoff of Tegethoff Development, who is developing the $90 million Expo at Forest Park at DeBaliviere and Pershing. There will be 287 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail space including a grocery store. The crime rate in that area is high and you fight crime with activity. Maxine’s plan is to create a lot of activity.”

“It’s not the building project that gets me excited. I was interested because of Maxine’s idea of bringing so many things together. I don’t think it has been done exactly like this in St. Louis before -- with this amount of capital investment, this kind of new-age environment, with the right kind of amenities, conference rooms, areas to congregate, and the level of enthusiasm of the leader.”

Bob Clark continues, “We’ve lost so many corporate headquarters and we’ve lost so much corporate funding. We need these kinds of projects to make up some of the gap. This project came to be because of creative funding that made the project more complex but viable.”

Even though COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on nonprofits, Bob is very bullish on the future and the need for Delmar DivINe. Citing what happened after 9/11 in 2001, Bob said, “Do you remember after 9/11? I was flying on a plane about eight months after 9/11. A guy sitting next to me told me that there wouldn’t be another hotel built for 10 years in the United States. Two years later there was the biggest hotel building boom of all time. People respond and people come back. Every time there is a crisis there is innovation and new businesses and new technology that comes out of it. I sense that the hope is that Delmar DivINe will be ground zero for this innovation.”

Still nearly a year from opening its doors, both Maxine and Bob check on progress at Delmar DivINe every day, oftentimes unannounced and without any fanfare. Maxine quickly deflects praise or attention for her efforts and thanks Clayco for their love of St. Louis, their attention to quality, and for building healthy and sustainable buildings. “They (Clayco) have amazing in-house resources which have allowed us to manage the project from one place without having to play the role of contractor.”

As more details of Delmar DivINe emerge, there will be many more stories about the nonprofits, their clients, and the impact on the community. For Maxine and Bob, Delmar DivINe may be their first project together and one of their greatest legacies. Generations of children will love their teddy bears or benefit from the nonprofit programs Maxine has supported. And millions of square feet of buildings will be home base for companies, their employees, and apartment dwellers countrywide. But it’s the investment Maxine and Bob are making in their own backyard that has the power to change St. Louis... and the world. For this, we applaud you in our amazement of your inspiration and action.