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Using Arts and Culture to Rebuild a St. Louis Neighborhood

Michelle Stevens.

To Michelle Connell Stevens, St. Louis is a special place.

A Marine brat who grew up in “at least seven states,” Stevens loved summer visits with relatives in the Missouri port city. It’s also where she fell in love. And it’s where she is forging a career in “creative place making.”

Stevens, 42, who graduated NC State in 1996 with a B.A. in communication, is vice president of the Grand Center, Inc., a nonprofit that has worked since the early 1980s to transform a decaying neighborhood into a destination for arts and entertainment.

“Creative place making is an evolving field where you’re intentionally leveraging the power of arts and culture to serve community interests,” Stevens says of her work. “We’re building a place based around the arts, so you’re harnessing that energy that’s helping to revitalize these buildings.”

Located within blocks of three universities, the Grand Center is home to 14 museums and galleries, a Broadway theater, a circus, the St. Louis Symphony, public television and radio stations, and Jazz at the Bistro, a well-known music venue. In all, Stevens says, more than 40 nonprofit arts and education organizations call the neighborhood home. It generates more than $81 million a year in arts- and culture-related economic activity.

Stevens has been with the Grand Center since 2011. She spent 28 months in charge of marketing and grants before her promotion to vice president in January 2014. In her new job, she woos major donors and is a strategic planner. Right now, she’s working with arts groups to develop a neighborhood brand.

“This is an exciting time to be in the arts district,” Stevens says. Grand Center Inc. donated land to the city and raised money to design and build a neighborhood park. New lighting, wider sidewalks and a garden wall are on the way. Another project will bring 150 apartments and a parking garage. A boutique hotel is coming soon, and Bull Moose Industries, a pipe manufacturing company, is moving its North American headquarters to the neighborhood.

“They have a lot of engineers on staff, and this is an opportunity to expose them to new thinking, to generate fresh ideas,” Stevens says. “They want to be downtown and in an area where the arts and creative thinking thrive.”

A year from now, Stevens will be able to look out her office window and admire the latest improvements. “We’re here to help facilitate this redevelopment and we’re also here to help promote the neighborhood as a whole,” she says.

Besides major organizations like the St. Louis Symphony (a 2015 Grammy winner) and Fox Theatricals (whose Broadway play “The Humans” won a 2016 Tony Award), smaller groups add to the creative vibe. Nineteen regional theater companies staged 20-minute performances around the arts district on July 1. A free summer music festival continues into September.

Stevens’ interest in the arts was kindled during a college internship at the state Department of Cultural Resources, which oversees museums, historic sites and other cultural venues in North Carolina.  “The idea of working for a historic site or a museum became really appealing,” she says.

After graduating, Stevens spent two years with a nonprofit that supports Tryon Palace, a state historic site in New Bern, N.C., and then moved to Missouri in 2004 to work as fundraiser for a private school and a college. She got her MBA in marketing at Saint Louis University in 2010.

Even with that workload, she found time for volunteer work. From 2005 to 2010, Stevens led NC State’s St. Louis-area alumni network.

It was at an alumni game-watching party where she ran into Elliott Stevens, an NC State graduate who dated one of her Alpha Phi sorority sisters. The two fell in love and married. They live in a house that they’re renovating near the arts district. Stevens says they’re happy to raise their two daughters in a such a vibrant city.

And, for now, this creative place maker can’t imagine herself any place but the Grand Center Inc.

“There are so many exciting things happening in the neighborhood right now that I don’t think I’d want to leave,” she says. “I want to see all these projects that we’ve been working on come to fruition. A year from now, the view outside my office window will be completely different.”