Story of NEAT:
Mattie Rhodes Center was established in 1894 with a $500 bequest from Kansas City native Mattie Florence Rhodes. Throughout her life, Mattie had worked with her church friends, the Little Gleaners, to help the less fortunate in the community. With the bequest, the Little Gleaners established the Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society with a pledge of: “I promise to do all I can to help the needy and suffering by working for them, learning about them, giving for them and trying to interest others in them.” A constant throughout MRC’s 123-year history has been community service to Kansas City’s most vulnerable populations, often those living in extreme poverty and who have had barriers to self-sufficiency, most recently due to language and cultural differences. MRC’s main work is to enrich the lives of individuals, families, and communities in a respectful, multicultural environment; the agency envisions a vibrant community where individuals and families are healthy, safe, and have the resources to thrive.
In 2000, as a result of MRC’s varied experience with the Latino community, the leadership of MRC was approached by personnel from St. Aloysius Catholic Church in the Historic Northeast seeking assistance to work with families, adults, and children of Latino and Spanish speaking descent. Following a period of 7 years of operating within the Historic Northeast, MRC’s Board of Directors supported the decision to “put down permanent roots” and purchased a former Sunday school building at 148 North Topping Avenue in the Indian Mound neighborhood. MRC has become an anchor for the Historic Northeast, offering a comprehensive array of social services that includes: youth development, mental health counseling, family violence prevention & intervention programing, substance abuse counseling, health & wellness, cultural arts and advocacy.
MRC’s foray into community development has been progressive, beginning with providing individual services to neighborhood residents and culminating where we are today with providing infrastructural support to NEAT. In July 2014, MRC’s Board of Directors officially provided a recommendation to the President/CEO to explore various ways to be involved in community development. Community development comes as an evolution and a natural extension of MRC’s mission to enrich the lives of individuals, families and communities in a respectful, multicultural environment. As this direction begins to manifest itself, the vision of a vibrant community where individuals and families are healthy, safe and have the resources to thrive comes closer to reality. Since 2014, MRC created a Community Development Board Committee consisting of board members which maintain expertise in a variety of community fields such as planning, development, and legal. As of 2015 NEAT has maintain a presence on this board committee.
The community development division of MRC aligns closely with the agency strategic plan which maintains the goal of “MATTIE RHODES CENTER WILL HAVE CAPITALIZED ON OPPORTUNITIES TO ACHIEVE OUR MISSION AND CREATE LASTING COMMUNITY IMPACT”. MRC recognizes that creating environmental change will have a lasting positive impact on the individuals that we serve on a day-to-day basis. True “lasting” community impact can only be achieved by a holistic view of the issues which impact the community.
In 2010, Greater Kansas City LISC turned its attention to the Historic Northeast, building upon its Neighborhoods Now program and its relationship with the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood. Community investors see the Northeast as an important asset to the city. Its close location to downtown has historically made it a sought out destination, now worthy of redevelopment and investment. Unlike much of the east side of Kansas City to the south, the Northeast still has most of its urban fabric intact, which increases its potential outcomes as far as redevelopment is concerned. Having recognized the value in doing so, LISC coordinated local organizations to meet to see what could be done to leverage the Historic Northeast’s assets to strengthen this community. A few months after the group began meeting, the Greater Kansas City Chamber and Heart of America United Way announced the Urban Neighborhood Initiative intended to focus community giving in a targeted area in five different categories. The groups that had been meeting believed that this initiative aligned with the groups’ vision for the future and decided to apply. Kay Barnes, a consultant and former Mayor of Kansas City, was asked to assist in facilitating the discussions that would eventually lead to a grant application, given successes that the city experienced in several venues under her leadership. While the collaborative was not chosen as the target area, the partners around the table believed in the importance of what they had discussed and proposed, so decided to continue to meet and seek other sources of funds. Some successes that came out of these early efforts were the community-driven Invest Northeast Plan and the Independence Avenue Zoning Overlay. Invest Northeast is a collaborative effort focused on implementation of sustainable strategies that improve infrastructure and stimulate responsible economic development. The Zoning Overlay set up an ordinance that ensures quality design standards for redevelopment along Independence Avenue. The group that facilitated this work became known as NEAT.
During the ensuing years, NEAT endeavored to define itself in a way that was relevant to the needs of the neighborhood and addressed issues identified by community-wide stakeholders. MRC secured money from LISC for the examination of NEAT as an entity that could ultimately sustain itself. A paid contractor led a process of information gathering, analysis, and synthesis. Twenty-five neighborhood leaders and community-wide stakeholders were interviewed in depth and gave feedback on issues such as defining the nature of NEAT, how it should be sustained, what its top priorities should be, and how it should be organized. The contractor also reviewed the fourteen area plans that had been adopted in the Northeast and distilled out of these common issues. The data collected by the contractor was synthesized in to the NEAT Action Plan. Four issues emerged from this document that are identified as the Community Action Plan: public safety, commercial and residential development, economic development, and livability.
Using the NEAT Action Plan and Community Action Plan as its basis, MRC created a Scope of Services, and, in 2015, LISC and MRC approached the City of Kansas City to advocate for funding for NEAT. Previously, MRC was underwriting the activities of NEAT and acted as its fiscal agent for fundraising. With the goal of appreciative inquiry in mind, MRC formally accepted the role of a “backbone” entity. Subsequently, MRC invested significant uncompensated staff time and financial resources during this incubation period. Following several years’ work, the community determined that further support was needed for the endeavor to be sustained. A partnership between LISC and KCMO emerged to provide funding for an organizational Director, with $300,000 committed over three years. Mary Cyr was hired to fulfill this role in 2015; thirty-plus year career as an architect providing services to mission-driven organizations made her a good fit for this position. Additionally, she has expertise in and knowledge of how real estate development projects are implemented. These skill sets have benefited NEAT as it moves into its Implementation Plan, which includes property redevelopment and community advocacy. Mary has worked to build relationships with Northeast and city-wide stakeholders and has leveraged those relationships to advance the Northeast as directed by the community. Early in 2017, NEAT’s Action Plan and Scope of Services documents played a crucial role in the creation of an Implementation Plan that identified four relevant impact areas, with goals, strategies, and milestones to be met. These four impact areas identified include neighborhood redevelopment and stabilization, community financial prosperity, economic development, and community advocacy. The Implementation Plan outlines how NEAT as an organization will be realized, what long-term, far-reaching agenda will be accomplished, and what smaller, neighborhood-focused goals will be met.
Through the creation of the NEAT Action Plan and its resulting recommendations, NEAT examined various models for structural organization and concluded that a board of director’s model was the most appropriate. Soon after taking the leadership role with NEAT, the Director organized a Steering Committee. Since NEAT is not yet a corporate entity, it does not have a board of directors, but research identified the need for a structure that would bring resources to move projects forward. The Director created a plan for the Steering Committee so that it would include representation from the six neighborhoods, MRC, and the community-wide stakeholder group. The Director created a nominating committee, candidates were selected, and elections were held to fill the four spots for community-wide stakeholder positions. The Steering Committee meets quarterly and provides support to the Director as she navigates the development of NEAT in these initial months. Currently, the group is addressing the formation of the new 501c3 board of directors that will replace the Steering Committee by the end of 2017. In addition to the Steering Committee, NEAT has work groups that correspond to the elements of the Community Action Plan. So far, two work groups have formed: the Commercial and Residential Work Group and the Economic Development Work Group. These work groups are filled with neighborhood and community-wide stakeholders who have expertise in the corresponding areas of focus. The work groups take part in the implementation of strategies developed by the Director per community input and offer the Director support and guidance in these areas.
It was decided that NEAT should gain 501c3 status in order to become an independent community-driven entity that would reflect the reality of NEAT as a separate organization from MRC. This independent identity will enable NEAT to define itself as a CDC with capacity for community development currently not possible through MRC. 501c3 status is necessary for eligibility to receive funding from foundations and government entities. MRC and NEAT are closely aligned and are in tandem. MRC will have a position on the new NEAT 501c3 board of directors.