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Incubator Planned For Small-Time Contractors On Prospect

The community development corporation Blue Hills Community Services has been working to rebuild the Blue Hills neighborhood for the past 38 years.  And they've just begun construction on their latest project:  a $3 million energy-efficient renovation of a building at 50th and Prospect.

The new center will house the organization's headquarters, and provide office space and training for about a dozen small-time contractors at a time.  The contractor incubator will be the first of its kind in the Kansas City area.

Challenges Facing Small-Time Contractors

Blue Hills director of planning and development Cliff Pouppirt says the organization has been working with these contractors for years to rehab and build new homes in the neighborhood.

"A lot of the contractors we work with, they're pretty small shops. They're the owners of their business, but they're also the daily laborers of their business," Pouppirt says. "They don't really have the professional staff to be able to perform some of the office duties, so sometimes their family members will be doubling in that role. Sometimes they'll be performing that role from their truck."

That makes it hard for these contractors to meet with clients. And without a computer, they write out most of their invoices and bids longhand.  Blue Hills executive director Joanne Bussinger says that over the years, the organization has been working one-on-one with contractors to improve their capacity. 

"We may start them out with a small project – a concrete project or a water heater project at one of our multi-family properties.  And as they increase their business and are able to afford additional insurances required by federally funded projects, we can move them into other construction projects, larger projects."

But Bussinger says the lack of adequate office resources and specialized training often prevents these contractors from being able to expand. Many of them are minorities or women, but lack the certification that allows them to bid for city and federally-funded jobs that require a certain percentage of MBE/WBE contractors (Minority Business Enterprises or Women Business Enterprises).

Incubator will Work with 10-12 Contractors at a Time

The new contractor incubator will have office space for 10 to 12 contractors, including access to computers equipped with job estimation, book-keeping, tax and other business-related software.  Regional contractors have already offered to hold training sessions in areas like lead-based paint stabilization and abatement, asbestos abatement, weatherization and green building trends.  Bussinger says these larger contractors also have to meet MBE/WBE participation goals so they are eager to increase the pool of smaller contractors with the proper skills and certification.

Green Building Planned on Prospect

According to Bussinger, Blue Hills plans to use green building techniques and make the 14,000-square-foot building energy efficient, including solar panels and landscaping with native plants.  She hopes some of the contractors will be able to work on the Green Impact Zone's weatherization and other green infrastructure projects. (Blue Hills is located within the 150-block area of east Kansas City in which federal stimulus funds have been concentrated.)

The building is in an area where there are many boarded-up buildings and vacant lots. This is one of several new development projects along Prospect (including an Aldi's grocery store planned for 39th and Prospect and a new police station and crime lab at 27th and Prospect).  But Bussinger says there are already strong local businesses along the corridor.

"This project … will begin to give hope to some of those businesses and hopefully encourage future development and future businesses," Bussinger says. "Over 95,000 commuters [on Bruce R. Watkins Drive] have visibility to this site … we need a beacon of urban development ...  something that is a gateway to the community."

The new Blue Hills Community Services Center and Contractor Incubator is slated to open this fall.  It’s being financed through Kansas City’s EnergyworksKC grant from the Department of Energy, US Housing and Urban Development and Greater Kansas City LISC. There will be a community meeting about the project at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 5:30pm. 

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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