MLK Wellness Complex and the Critical Value of Transparency with the Community in Economic Development
The Small Business Center dispenses high-value loans and grants to companies pledging to improve community life and increase property value. As developers adopt a closed-door policy, shutting themselves off from the community, residents lose their sense of ownership of South Dallas.
Months ago, our publisher Patrick Washington posted an op-ed titled, “Why is the Old Dallas Weekly Building Surrounded by Shit?” The article expressed a frustration felt by both South Dallas residents and preservationists of Dallas’ rich history and culture regarding the blight of slow development in an often-forgotten sector of the city.
The old Dallas Weekly building once represented Black excellence in the community. Established in 1954 as the second Black publication in the city, the Dallas Weekly placed its headquarters at what is now 3101 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and gave its community a voice through wave after wave of deep transformation. Through the economic expansion of the city by way of its growing prominence as an industrial powerhouse, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the social upheaval through the decades that followed, Dallas Weekly was there.
Today, the building, now owned by the real estate company Kingdom Legacy, has fallen into disrepair amidst its transformation into the MLK Wellness Complex, a project attempting to “[pioneer] a communal approach to development in disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities.”
On its website, Kingdom Legacy describes its goal as achieving and modeling transformative development in South Dallas in an effort to spur greater economic activities in the area.
However, as Kingdom Legacy has publicized the ongoing development of its offices, as well as CEO Ferrell Fellows’ own self-promotional work, progress on MLK Wellness Complex has begun to stagnate amidst mixed messaging and inaction. Currently in a state of decay, the kicked-in glass door at the front of the building has been boarded repeatedly as houseless residents seeking shelter continuously remove it. If not entering through the front, they jump the back fence to enter through the garage doorway at the rear of the building, seemingly not yet fitted with a new garage door. Subject to several code issues, the last reported press on the project described it as “undergoing permitting approval” by the city.
“A lot of homeless will sneak in, usually one or two at a time,” a local resident said at around 4 pm on a weekday, returning from work at AT&T stadium. “They either kick in the door, but mostly they just slip through the back. They clean up after themselves, usually. They’re respectful for the most part.”
Other residents and workers at nearby businesses give conflicting accounts of the frequency of construction/renovation work. Most agree, though, that the work done on the building is either more exploratory or janitorial in nature, as minimal construction has occurred aside from the placement of new interior walls. As we could not access the roof, it is unknown if the roof has been repaired. It’s been suggested that copper wiring has been repeatedly stolen out of the building, though it is unknown if this has prompted Kingdom Legacy to refocus or reorient priorities in renovations to make the building less easily accessible.
The Small Business Center, established in December 2021 with the mission of promoting local economic development, awarded Kingdom Legacy with both the South Dallas/Fair Park Opportunity Fund (SDFPOF) and the Southern Dallas Investment Fund (SDIF). The $350,000 loan and $100,000 grant provided through city funding are both offered to businesses with the according capital and investment plan in obtaining and renovating a space.
Purchased by Kingdom Legacy in the preceding winter, by 2022 the property at 3101 MLK Jr. Blvd. was valued at $460,000 according to the Central Appraisal District, a huge upset in value from 2021’s projection of $270,000. In June 2022, Kingdom Legacy reported $511,150 in funding from the bank to invest in the project along with the $450,000 total charged from the SDFPOF and the SDIF. Insured by First National, renovations outlined in the project include the installation of solar panels, re-flooring, painting, plumbing, electrical installation, and much more. Window/door replacement (including the garage door) and brick repair were allocated for reimbursement from the SDIF, specifically.
“We’re definitely sensitive to the feedback,” said Larry Yarrell, co-founder of the Marcus Graham Project and minority owner of the MLK Wellness Complex when we last spoke with him in April. “It’s been a landmark to all of us. I grew up around that building. We’re residents in the southern sector and we want to see it done right. We’ve gone into this with fresh eyes and I think we have the right people in place to see this though.”
The letter of intent for the project, drafted in May 2022, states an original projected completion date of March 1, 2023, allotting for 10 months to complete renovations and establish leasing at the property for businesses such as a community fitness center and a “healthy food restaurant.” Despite funds being dispensed in December of 2022 by the SBC, Yarrell stated during our interview that the project would be completed “in the summer of 2023.” This only allows for around eight or nine months to complete development.
Even by optimistic standards in a project this involved, both projections are incredibly ambitious. Joyce Williams, Director of the Small Business Center, explains that projects typically can take up to two years to finish.
“Typically a project takes 18-24 months to complete,” Williams says. “It’s very normal for a project to run a little longer than expected due to potential issues. And most get a six-month extension, which would round out to 24 months as I mentioned.”
According to the contract signed by Fellows of Kingdom Legacy drafted by the Small Business Center, the only deadline-based stipulation made was for Fellows to invest at least $671,608 by July 30, 2023, with no required completion date for development. As Fellows has refused an interview with the Dallas Weekly, it is unknown if that money has been invested into the project or if there is a current projected completion date. Regardless, it is highly unlikely that the project will be canceled or that payment will be refunded to the Small Business Center under any circumstance, as it would be a first for the SDFPOF.
“The purpose of the South Dallas/Fair Park Opportunity Fund is to provide a safety net for projects that bring economic development to a community,” Williams said, further clarifying that there has never been a project canceled under the South Dallas Fair Park Opportunity Fund since its inception.
As those connected with Kingdom Legacy have either refused to speak with Dallas Weekly or have lost contact entirely, we are unable to provide a firm update on the development of the MLK Wellness Complex. We cannot relay elaboration on efforts expressed by Kingdom Legacy’s leadership and therefore cannot comment on specifics that may be of public interest, such as the affordability of community services proposed for the development. It is unknown if Yarrell’s previous comments on the completion date of the project still stand.
For now, South Dallas residents pass the building on their way to and from the nearby DART station, some taking a moment to offer sad regard to a debased cultural monument of the community.
“I hope they do something with it,” an older resident says in reference to the building. “South Dallas has a lot of history and this is a big part of it.”