Ken Morgan has deep roots in Indianapolis. And an area of Indianapolis that’s particularly important to Ken is Indiana Avenue—the city’s most historically significant African-American district. It’s where he spent part of his childhood, where he was a student, minister, and lawyer, and where he first became involved in the world of community development.
In the 1980s, most of the historic buildings that populated Indiana Avenue in its heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s were gone. But one of the few remaining ones, the iconic Madame Walker Theatre, is where Ken got his first taste of community development.
“The Madame Walker Urban Life Center is where I first got bitten by the community development bug,” Ken said. “I got excited about opportunities to improve the neighborhood through restoring an important part of its historic fabric and using the Walker Building as a catalyst to stimulate future neighborhood revitalization.
While Ken cherished his time working for the Madame Walker Urban Life Center, he decided to take his interests in neighborhood development a step further by helping launch another community development corporation: Business Opportunity Systems (BOS). It was at BOS that Ken began work on 500 Place: a multipurpose building on Indiana Avenue designed to increase the participation of African-American businesses and neighborhood organizations in the process of reinvigorating the Indiana Avenue area.
Getting the 500 Place project off the ground wasn’t easy. It required unprecedented collaboration among a variety of public and private parties, including BOS, Midtown Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (the neighborhood association), Madame Walker Urban Life Center, Mansur Real Estate, Huntington Bank, LISC, Lilly Endowment Inc., IUPUI, and others to make the project a reality.
For Chuck Cagann, president of Mansur Real Estate, 500 Place offered a unique opportunity to revive a section of Indianapolis that had deteriorated throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.
“The 1980s in Indianapolis saw lots of improvements downtown, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen everywhere,” Chuck said. “The Indiana Avenue neighborhood where 500 Place is located was one area that wasn’t receiving enough attention. That’s a big reason why we wanted to get involved with Ken and this project—it was a chance to make a real difference in an area that needed it.”
And Ken says the project wouldn’t have been possible without help from LISC, which was new to Indianapolis at the time. LISC assisted with initial pre-development planning, and also provided critical gap financing at the end of the development process..
“I like to think of LISC as a sparkplug for community development,” Ken said. “Their support helped us to start the development process and to attract other investment partners, and that was key to our success. Most important, they put us in a position to move forward in a way that was sensitive to the area’s history.”
Even before 500 Place was completed, all 28,000 square feet of commercial space was pre-leased, and the project received numerous awards for its design and construction. What made the building so special was that it was 100% owned by neighborhood organizations with roots in the African-American community, and it set new standard for African-American business participation in a major neighborhood development.
African-American business participation included ORA, an African-American construction firm owned by Oscar Robertson (a former neighborhood resident and basketball legend), who partnered with Mansur Real Estate to become the construction managers for the project, and Walter Blackburn and Associates, an African-American architectural firm, serving as project architect. A 25% goal for contracting with African-American contractors was met and surpassed. And the legacy of African-American business presence on Indiana Avenue was continued as a young African-American dentist, Jeanette Sabir-Holloway, opened her new dental office in 500 Place.
“It was very important to Ken that 500 Place be a symbol of Indianapolis’s rich African-American history,” said Charles Blair, president of Charles Blair Associates, former program officer for Lilly Endowment Inc., and founding board member of BOS. “For Ken, that meant more than just leasing to African-American owned businesses. It meant getting African-American contractors and engineers involved with the construction of the building. So that’s what he did.”
When it comes to who gets the credit for 500 Place, Ken insists it should be the Indiana Avenue area neighborhood organizations and broad-based public/private partners that helped with the ambitious project—as well as God above. “My philosophy regarding neighborhood development is that it takes vision, dedication, partnerships, and faith to be successful,” he said. “Faith not only in our abilities, but also trust in God to bless us to achieve our aspirations. I thank the Lord Jesus Christ and all of our partners for what was accomplished in the development of 500 Place.”