A community center is being built in northeast Colombia to address what one lead organizer calls a “resource desert” for children and families.
At a press conference on Friday morning, the local non-profit association United Community Builders announced that it has received its first major donation for the Beacon Center, which will be built at 1801 Towne Drive. The Veterans United Foundation donated $1 million for the construction.
“I’m here to share with you that a beacon of light is coming to northeast Colombia,” said Gary Thompson, CEO of Columbia Insurance Group and co-chair of the United Community Builders Capital Campaign Committee, as he launched the press conference.
Once built, the Beacon Center will include a gymnasium and children’s development center. Many programs offered by United Community Builders will move to the new building. They include: the United Community School House, a before and after school care and child care program; Transformation, a professional skills building program; Club Kid Connect, a summer program; Homework time; the Community Meal; and a pantry.
United Community Builders also plans to launch other programs on the new site. Another goal is to transform the child development center into an academy for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“We’re excited about the investment we want to make here,” Erik Morse, chairman of the board of the Veterans United Foundation, said at the meeting. “The need is there, and the time has come.”
Tim Rich, director of development for United Community Builders, said in an earlier phone interview that construction of the Beacon Center is expected to begin this spring and will take 12 to 18 months. The center will house the headquarters of the organization.
So far, United Community Builders has raised $2.5 million of its $4 million goal. The Missouri Department of Economic Development awarded United Community Builders $250,000 in 50% corporate donor tax credits through the Neighborhood Assistance Program.
At the announcement on Friday, Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones, Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Brian Yearwood and mayoral candidates Barbara Buffaloe, Tanya Heath and Randy Minchew.
The organization sees a need for the center’s presence in the White Gate neighborhood, north of Interstate 70 and east of Paris Road. “Services for people who need some type of help are very thin in this quadrant,” Rich said.
At the press conference, Damian Dean, executive director of United Community Builders, said northeast Colombia is “a current resource wasteland” with “very few social services located within walking distance.”
In an earlier phone interview, he said he was looking forward to having a community center in the White Gate area.
“We want to help revitalize the neighborhood without evicting current residents, but helping them get up and go and be able to live full lives for themselves and their families,” Dean said.
The Columbia Police Department has been working to find ways to reduce crime, drug use and poverty in the area, according to Rich. Additionally, police and the White Gate Neighborhood Association have had informal talks with United Community Builders about providing services in the community, Rich said.
“We want to make it a safe zone for women, children, families and men as well,” Dean said.
United Community Builders and the police department have developed a relationship through the nonprofit’s children’s programs. They want to have a police presence in the new facility.
“It could be a place where kids can come and build relationships with officers where it’s not in a negative capacity,” Dean said.
The White Gate neighborhood is full of potential, Jones said at the press conference.
“It’s a place where the right services, the right influences, and the right programming can uplift people and improve lives,” Jones said. “It’s a perfect location for a neighborhood center.”
In an interview after the announcement, Jones said the neighborhood has received more attention from police officers in recent years than other beats.
“This is a partnership that can help solve some of these generational issues that we can’t get out of,” he said.
The Beacon Center will be built after the demolition of the current building, formerly Columbia Healthcare Center. The site was owned by James Lincoln, who donated it to United Community Cathedral in December 2018. It has been leased to United Community Builders since June 2019.