St Louis’s Center of Creative Arts: Bridging the divide through the arts February 5, 2019

“We are living in an idea economy. An arts education provides skills that all learners need – skills that create critical thinkers, problem solvers, effective collaborators and communicators who can empathize with others and uncover unique perspectives. It’s not necessarily about becoming a dancer or an actor. It’s about becoming the type of leader and thinker that the world needs now, more than ever.”

That’s how Kelly Pollock, Executive Director of St. Louis’s COCA – Center of Creative Arts, makes the case for investing in the arts – arts education in particular.

And invest it has. COCA is nearly doubling the size of its facility in response to a 315% increase in demand over the past decade, and its location along St. Louis’s notorious Delmar Boulevard will literally and symbolically bridge the two sides of the “Delmar Divide” – so nicknamed because of the stark economic disparities and racial segregation that it demarcates.

A case for the arts

“People want to live in vibrant communities,” Pollack says. “They want to live where they feel fulfilled, where their kids feel connected to other people and can understand other cultures.”

The sheer number and diversity of St. Louisans who come through COCA’s doors support Pollock’s claims. The center serves more than 50,000 people annually through classes and camps, performances and exhibitions, a nationally recognized precollegiate program for promising young artists, and programs throughout the community. All told, COCA serves a whopping 221 zip codes.

“We believe the arts belong to everyone, so we have built a variety of pathways for people to come in at all skill levels, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Pollock says. For example, COCA supports students whose families don’t have cars by providing buses to attend classes. Scholarships, academic tutoring, and career counseling are also woven into COCA programs.

Those additional services can make all the difference. Pollock recalls an early scholarship student who reached a high enough level as a dancer to audition for Juilliard. The organization realized that dance classes, no matter how instructive, weren’t enough for him to overcome some of the barriers still standing in his way: “He needed to do prep work for the application process. He needed someone to chaperone him and fly him to New York for the audition. He needed a suitcase for the trip.”

Since then, thousands of students have benefited from COCA’s holistic approach. For more than 15 years, 100% of the kids who have gone through COCA’s vaunted pre-professional arts program – 65% of whom receive financial support – have graduated with post-secondary plans for college or professional training.

Expanding the community’s ‘second home’

Success brings growth, and growth brings real estate challenges. In 2017, COCA embarked on a multi-year effort to improve and expand its facilities, as well as boost its endowment to sustain itself well into the future. The 45,000-square-foot expansion will nearly double COCA’s footprint and allow it to increase the number of people it serves each year by 19,000. A combination of donations and New Markets Tax Credits from IFF and other financial institutions helped finance the project.

Other factors that influenced COCA’s decision to expand were the need for versatile spaces to accommodate multidisciplinary programming in dance, theatre, art and design, and vocal music, as well as the social aspect of being a creative hub that’s warm and welcoming to all. As Pollock says, “We have kids and families who literally call COCA their second home,” so it became clear the organization needed to provide inviting areas for people to talk, eat, and just be.

There was never much doubt that COCA would opt to expand its original building – a light-filled, historic Modernist masterpiece – versus move. And while the building’s beauty and history were part of that decision, COCA’s strategic location along Delmar Boulevard was also a main determinant.

The project has two major phases: a renovation of COCA’s west wing, which the organization completed in June 2018 – and which includes a kitchen for culinary programs and for serving events – and the construction of a new east wing by 2020. Crews broke ground in what was formerly a parking lot this past fall; staff and community members can already see the orchestra pit for a new, state-of-the-art theatre.

In addition to the theatre, the east wing will house studios for dance and theatre, technical space and costume shops, backstage space, and a community commons for people to gather.

“We want to think about this space as a house of the people,” Pollock says. “Whether you’re an early childhood student coming in for your very first art class, an adult student coming in to try ballet for the first time in your life, or a business leader taking a class in storytelling, we want it to be a true community center where everyone feels welcome.”

‘A generational effort’

Even well managed, successful organizations like COCA can stumble when they undertake a major facilities development project. “These types of projects are not for the faint of heart,” Pollock admits. “I’ve leaned heavily on people with experience in community development – it’s been very helpful to have a robust network of organizations like IFF.”

IFF got involved when Pollock asked David Desai-Ramirez, IFF’s Executive Director for the Southern Region and a member of the COCA Associate Board, to serve on a financial task force recruited to think through the project’s financial intricacies.

“We have a mixed-income model, so we depend both on our earned revenue and donated support,” Pollock explains. “We needed a more robust financial modeling tool that would help us see multiple scenarios for putting together all the resources to make COCA sustainable for the long term, which was really the ultimate goal of the project.”

The modeling tool helped COCA consider not only how to raise the money and finance the construction, but also what its endowment and reserves should look like, and how its space could generate additional revenue.

The resulting solution involves a $45 million “Create Our Future” capital campaign, as well as New Markets Tax Credits equity from multiple financial partners:

  • $4 million from U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation, the tax credit division of U.S. Bank;
  • $5.7 million from National Community Investment Fund, which is also partnering with Legacy Bank & Trust to provide $2 million in loan funding;
  • $5.3 million from IFF; and
  • $14 million in bridge funding from Regions Bank for COCA’s donor pledges.

These federal tax credits provide a source of equity and low-cost financing; benefits include low borrowing rates and seven years of interest-only payments.

Reflecting on the historical significance of the project, Pollock says, “I don’t think anyone expected that COCA would grow into the type of organization that it is today, that it would be serving so many people, or that the quality of the programming would take off the way that it did. So, we stretched ourselves to think long term and approach this expansion as a generational effort.”