Empowerment center opens in Ferguson at burned store site

The National Urban League's chief helped christen a new community empowerment center in Ferguson on Wednesday, calling the site a "powerful first step" in helping the St. Louis suburb still mending from unrest over the police shooting death of Michael Brown three years ago.

On the same day the Urban League kicked off its national conference in St. Louis, Marc Morial said much work remains even with the arrival of the $3-million center, built on the property where a QuikTrip convenience store was burned during rioting after a white officer fatally shot the 18-year-old Brown, who was black and unarmed, in August 2014. The center will include job training and placement, offices for the Salvation Army and other services.

Oklahoma-based QuikTrip demolished the building and donated the property to the Urban League, which announced plans for the Empowerment Center in July 2015. Several companies and organizations donated money to build it. St. Louis County provided $1 million in tax credits.

During Wednesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Ferguson City Councilman Wesley Bell said building the empowerment center at the former QuikTrip site was symbolic of how Ferguson is rising.

"This building has to mean something," said Bell, a black man elected after Brown's death. "It has to represent something."

The project's centerpiece is the Urban League's Save Our Sons job training and placement service. The center also will house offices for the Salvation Army, Lutheran Hope Center and the University of Missouri Extension Service.

The QuikTrip was torched the night after Brown's death, as a peaceful candlelight vigil was going on at the shooting site less than a mile away.

Brown had gotten into a scuffle with then-officer Darren Wilson after Wilson told Brown and a friend to get out of the street where they were walking. Wilson said that when he shot Brown, the 18-year-old was moving menacingly toward him. Some witnesses had said Brown was surrendering.

The initial unrest erupted after Brown's body lay in the street for hours in the summer heat. More protests gripped the town after a St. Louis County grand jury in November 2014 declined to charge Wilson, who resigned a short time later. The U.S. Justice Department also cleared him, but an investigation by that agency uncovered patterns of racial bias and profiling in Ferguson's police and courts.

Ferguson reached a settlement with the Justice Department that calls for revised police practices, court changes and other modifications.

About 20,000 people are expected to attend the Urban League conference that will also include a "State of Black America" town hall meeting, a gathering of urban mayors to discuss economic needs, a career fair, and a volunteer day in which backpacks will be donated to 10,000 children.