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Some folks are lucky in love. Paul McKee Jr. is lucky in lawn care.
With summer approaching, a local nonprofit group has plans to muster 84 young people to mow lawns in north St. Louis. Their main — and so far, only — client is McKee, who owns hundreds of vacant lots and abandoned houses on the north side. The lawn service is scheduled to commence June 2.
Here's where McKee's uncanny luck comes in: The workers are to be paid with public dollars.
The grass-cutting gigs are among 300 summer jobs to be created with $536,000 in federal funds recently obtained by U.S. Rep. William "Lacy" Clay. A local nonprofit agency, Better Family Life, will recruit laborers ages 16 to 24 for the lawn-maintenance squadron during a job fair Monday, May 19, at Harris-Stowe State University.
Marvin Steele, owner of the construction-services firm Urban Solution, is spearheading the program, dubbed Pathways, for Better Family Life. Pathways' goal, Steele says, is to funnel youths with an aptitude for construction work into pre-apprenticeship training and, ideally, a career. Says Steele: "Our primary purpose is to train young people to kind of uplift their lives."
Steele says he and Better Family Life launched the Pathways program by contacting banks and real estate companies that own property on the north side and are in need of maintenance help. "We contacted a lot of people," Steele reports, and McKee's O'Fallon-based development company, McEagle Properties, was "first to step up to the plate."
For the past several years, McKee has taken a hands-off approach with his north-side properties, allowing the maintenance work to fall to city crews by default. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last July that since 2004 the City of St. Louis had billed McKee more than $260,000 for upkeep — including grass cutting, board-up and demolition — on neglected properties.
City workers must tend to many nuisance properties, after first serving notice to the owners and reminding them about their responsibility. Demolition, especially, involves considerable red tape, notes Frank Oswald, the city's building commissioner, whose division has torn down several McKee-owned buildings in the past year. "If they don't do it, we have our own crews," Oswald says. "Then they tack on an administrative fee."
An employee in the city's forestry division, which bills property owners for lawn mowing along with the building division's services, was unable to provide the total amount McKee has paid to date.
Recent years have seen rampant speculation about McKee's intentions for his burgeoning north-side real estate portfolio. Last year the state legislature okayed a new financial incentive seemingly tailored for McKee, creating a new tax credit of up to $10 million annually for developers who launch large-scale projects in impoverished areas. (For more background on Paul McKee Jr, see "Phantom of the Hood" at www.riverfronttimes.com.)
The estimated labor cost for the Pathways program is $134,000, according to Tom Jones, executive director of the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE), a federally funded career center that will distribute the $536,000 federal appropriation. Based on his discussions with Steele, Jones says, Pathways workers will earn Missouri's minimum wage, $6.65 an hour, and work full-time for six weeks.
Apart from the 84 Pathways laborers, Jones says SLATE will find jobs for the remaining 216 young people in other venues, including nonprofit daycare centers and government offices.
Informed of Pathways' plan for its workers to toil on privately owned land, Jones responds, "We don't allow that." Jones says he will talk further with Steele and Malik Ahmed, president of Better Family Life, about the Pathways initiative.
Steele sees no problem with the arrangement with McEagle, and says, "We're thankful they're allowing this to occur." Although wages will be paid with federal funds, Steele says he's sure McEagle would reimburse Better Family Life for its expenses. "There are things we have to do with safety and equipment — all kinds of things that go far beyond just paying the kids the salary," he explains, adding that it's too early to tell what those expenses might amount to. "We're doing a lot of preparation now, recruitment — all that costs something."
McEagle spokesman Dan Brungard says he does not know any details about the Pathways program.
A spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay did not return calls requesting comment for this story.
Congressman Clay relayed a comment through a spokesman: "I pursued the supplemental appropriation on behalf of the city of St. Louis. Decisions about the implementation of the program are made at the local level."
The spokesman, Steve Engelhardt, adds that the congressman did not know the Pathways program would involve McKee's property.