Community Development in St. Louis: A Call for More Regional Collaboration

By Jenny Ryan,


Jenny is the Community Development Specialist for the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis. She has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning and Real Estate Development with a concentration in Community Development from Saint Louis University. She is also the co-founder of the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market.

Throughout my past year of working at the Community Builders Network (CBN) I have visited with many community development corporations, banks, philanthropic organizations and government agencies to learn about their experience working in community development in the St. Louis region. I have been heartened to see more organizations collaborating across neighborhood lines and geographic boundaries. But we can do more.

St. Louis has a history of its nonprofit organizations and city governments working independently instead of collaborating to address community development challenges. So it is welcome progress when organizations share resources and planning responsibilities to build a better St. Louis. At CBN we encourage and facilitate our member organizations to collaborate on community development projects and apply for funding jointly – collaborate instead of compete.

The neighborhoods surrounding Tower Grove Park are an excellent example of collaboration of community development organizations strategically working together to produce stronger communities. Facilitated by the Community Builders Network, the Tower Grove Neighborhoods CDC was formed from three place-based nonprofits. During the facilitation process each organization learned the strengths and weaknesses of the other. By combining complementary strengths and eventually merging organizations operationally, they have combined their knowledge and expertise to offer landlord trainings, build and renovate affordable homes (particularly nuisance properties), and conduct broader and better community engagement of residents and business owners to create a neighborhood- based plan.

As a network, CBN’s purpose is to help our members fulfill their missions while promoting collective efforts for making St. Louis a place where all residents have a chance to thrive. CBN has funded two successful collaborations of clusters of CDC members that work in different neighborhoods in close proximity. They created original workforce development programming, neighborhood beautification, neighborhood housing analysis, and funded a development position specifically for collaborative grants.  These collaborations did not achieve these results without a lot of discussion, difficulty, and sometimes conflict when discussing new ways of distributing resources in their communities.

Originally, there were four collaborations to be funded by Des Lee Collaborative Vision and CBN. But collaboration does not come without aches and pains.  Organizations may conflict on ideology or fail to maintain a consistent vision when staff turnover occurs. Sometimes, even when organizations do collaborate, the best-laid plans never get off the ground because stakeholders are just too busy keeping their own organizations operating.

Successful collaborations put the greater good of their shared neighborhood and public spaces at the forefront.  I encourage readers to reach out and engage with new partners when doing community development work and see how you can achieve more through partnerships. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. We must remain curious, not judgmental, about unfamiliar neighborhoods and communities.

And now I ask for your patience as I do a bit of self-promotion for the Community Builders Network. Please consider joining our network if you are a nonprofit doing place-based community development work, or if you are a bank or business, or developer looking to connect with those in the community development sector. We also welcome public sector and government organizations, as well as individuals looking to create a better community where they live or work.

And please make sure to attend the Community Builders Network Awards Reception Thursday, March 31, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm at T-REX downtown (free and open to the public) where we will honor those who have done important community building in St. Louis. The event is a wonderful opportunity to meet community organizations, philanthropic foundations, public and private sector, and grass roots activists in the community development field. It’s also a great way to promote your organization or business to over 250 people. Registration and sponsorship opportunities are available here.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis.