THE HIGHLINE LOWDOWN
Emmet Pierson on being uncomfortable, pushing the limits, and what he'd do with $400,000,000.
Recently we sat down with Emmet Pierson at Ruby Jean’s* to talk about transformational real estate. Our conversation was more than an hour so we’ve (done our best) to condense it here.
Emmet is President and CEO of KC’s largest urban core developer, Community Builders KC. A not-for-profit community development corporation, Community Builders has invested more than $225M in urban KC and has been committed to transforming neighborhoods and strengthening families. We have wanted to work with Emmet and his team for a long time, and in 2022, we kicked off two projects together. Hopefully with more ahead.
*Ruby Jean’s was just featured on Disney Plus as one of two KC black-owned businesses in this National Geographic piece.
Highline: Some people that read this may not be familiar with Community Builders. Give us the pitch and the one takeaway or one thing you want people to remember about CBKC.
Emmet: Sure. Community Builders is a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit community development corporation rooted out of the ideas from some of the first CDCs in the country in the early 1970s. We’re mission-driven. Our goal is to change the landscape of Kansas City, primarily on the east and urban sides. We run the development gamut from single-family to multi-family to office and commercial. But we’re just as passionate about some of those grassroots things that affect communities. At the height of COVID, we partnered with a sister organization to vaccinate thousands in neighborhoods where vaccinations weren’t occurring. We own and operate two grocery stores in what were food deserts. We’ve hosted the symphony in our parking lot on the east side of Kansas City. That’s us in a nutshell.
Highline: When you're developing on the East Side of KC, how do you address the challenge of gentrification?
Emmet: It’s very intentional. As a guy who grew up in urban Kansas City, it’s important that we do thoughtful development. In everything we do, we look to engage the community, get their feedback, and let them know this is what we’re doing and what’s coming. With “community” being our first name, we try to stay in tune with what the community wants. That doesn’t mean we always agree, but as a mission-driven organization, people know we are thoughtful. I’m sure if there was something that the community really didn’t want to do, then we probably wouldn’t do it.
Highline: A couple of years ago, we talked about how your cost of money is higher than others, and that frustrates you.
Emmet: It does. It is. Typically, my equity is higher. Typically, my interest rates are higher. My insurance is higher. I’m having a constant valuation battle, so the appraisal challenges are there, which has been a national debate. So, yeah. My cost and money are higher. Assuming that I can get access to money.
We’re able to use the same methodologies that for-profit developers use. We understand taxing and financing extremely well. We understand all of the EDC alphabet soup. As a former Port Authority commissioner, I know how to use that vehicle as well. The difference is that to close the gap that exists between cost and value, I have to go with other sources, whether that’s federal, state, city, or philanthropic.
I think there’s a belief that there’s a lot of money out there, especially given what we all witnessed with George Floyd. We had all these pledges all over the country, but those resources have gone to financial education and literacy, versus helping close the large-scale gaps we face.
Over 85% of KC Sun Fresh team members live within 3 miles of the store where they work. KC Sun Fresh is committed to providing team members with career opportunities, health care and disability plans, 401 K retirement plans and other benefits. With a focus on wealth creation, CBKC is passionate about circulating dollars within the community they serve.
Highline: Thinking about Kansas City, what are things Kansas City is getting right?
Emmet: Kansas City gets right their push toward more affordable housing. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, particularly when we’re talking about under-resourced communities.
What we get right is that I think philanthropy is willing to listen to the needs and issues that address Kansas City as a whole. What we get wrong there is that oftentimes, we want to bring in experts from outside of the country to tell us what’s best for the solution to the problem that we’re experiencing. How about this: let’s bring those who are closest to the problem to be part of the solution.
I think we get that wrong, and I see that so often. I saw it with the Opportunity Zones and legislation when Kansas City had a big push toward the Opportunity Zones. Then we had all these folks from out of town tell us how best to deploy potential capital without working with organizations like ours, who had eyes on the ground.
And, quite candidly, you invest with who you feel comfortable with. Those who have capital gains are listening to their lawyers and accountants and many of those folks don’t look like me. I’m from the communities that I serve. You do business with who you’re familiar with. So if my kids play soccer with you, if I go to church with you, if my kids go to school with your kids, if we all live around Brookside and never leave 63rd Street—I said it. I said it—then we’re not going to know there’s another world out there unless we are urban pioneers and explorers and we truly are wanting to make a difference. I get that but I don’t have that luxury.
Highline: You’re right in the center of the challenge, at least in Kansas City, on that. How do we cross that chasm? That’s a wide-open question.
Emmet: I think it starts with being uncomfortable. What do I mean by that? It starts with having a conversation with someone who isn’t like you, doesn’t represent you, and then you have them in your home, and you break bread with them. It's easy to go to a restaurant with somebody because there’s no intimacy there. Have them in your home and talk about these real issues and get a different perspective. You can’t always learn from someone who is like you. Oftentimes, the greatest learning happens in a conversation that you weren’t expecting, and you are vulnerable, and you open yourself to a different perspective.
Highline: Let’s say you had $100 million, what would you do?
Emmet: What I would do with $100 million is I’d go to the philanthropic community and and say, “I need you to match this.”
Brett: Okay. So now you have $200 million.
Kathryn: I like that first step.
Emmet: Then I would go to JPMorgan Chase, which is in Kansas City, and work with them to issue bonds based on that $200m. I’m now trying to grow that fund to do more things. As that’s going on, I'd take a look at all the plans that people have paid for -- but were never implemented -- and see if the plan could be implemented with this funding, starting with some of the most challenged zip codes.
There are people that are much smarter than I, let’s empower those non-profits that have been doing things such as Westside Housing Organization, such as Swope Health.
I would start looking at how do we give those folks transformational dollars to start making transformational moves? We’re not going to give you $500,000, Stephanie Boyer at Restart -- I’m going to give you $25 million to do your thing. $70 million to Gloria at Westside Housing. $25 million to start doing your thing, Dr. Jamie Rogers at Urban Neighborhood Initiative. Swope Health -- I’m going to give you $20 million. Community Builders, I’m going to give you $50 million, so you can go ahead and blow out your plan. Make the transformation that begins to increase the tax base.
On Downtown Baseball: Knowing the key members of the royals, John Sherman and Adam Sachs, I know those individuals care deeply about all of Kansas City. I can speak directly about Adam, who I served with on Port Authority. His family really was at the forefront of civil rights. When you have that kind of thought process and thoughtfulness going into a billion-plus dollar transaction, and they’re being intentional about inclusion on the front side of things and not on the back side, then I’m very hopeful for that.
Then, understanding that it’s not just about the physical stadium but how does that begin to resonate and reverberate economic opportunities in other parts of the city. They’re looking at probably three or four sites now. All of them touch areas that, if the stadium goes there, the economic opportunities will extend for blocks.
On the Plaza: I was invited to a gathering of concerned citizens of The Plaza, and what The Plaza could be, and what it should be. I was encouraged by the view that The Plaza doesn’t stop at Main. They all agreed that it extends as far as Troost. That’s encouraging. Maybe we can begin to see how that shakes out over the next 20 years.
Developed by Community Builders KC, The Rochester is a brand new intergenerational multifamily development and the latest addition to a mixed-use campus that already includes banking, health services, community service organizations, shopping and offices. The Rochester offers an option for those who want to upgrade their living accommodations and stay in the Blue Parkway community
Community Builders KC owns and operates two Sun Fresh grocery stores, one on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard (formerly Blue Parkway) and another at Linwood and Troost. We worked with CBKC to revamp the Sun Fresh brand, which will be implemented in the coming months.