An experimental jobs program hopes to end the stigma around new sports stadiums.
On Aug. 26, the Atlanta Falcons played a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals in the first event at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The $1.5-billion stadium, which will also be the home field for Atlanta’s United FC soccer team and will host the Super Bowl in 2019, seats over 70,000 fans and features a retractable roof and a 68,000-square-foot display, the largest video board in the NFL. Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank called it “the finest sports entertainment complex in the United States,” but its location on the west side of Atlanta places it, like so many other sports complexes, in neighborhoods considered some of the most impoverished, not just in Atlanta, but in the entire Southeast.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]You can’t have this beautiful thing that is going to help define the skyline of Atlanta next to some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised communities in the city.[/quote]
“As you probably have read and know, sports stadiums get a bad rap for a lot of reasons,” says Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development for the Arther M. Blank Family Foundation. “We’re committed. You can’t have this beautiful thing that is going to help define the skyline of Atlanta next to some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised communities in the city,” he says. To combat that perception, the Blank Foundation has spent the last three years working with these communities and outside partners to invest in and build up these neighborhoods just blocks from the stadium. By the end of this year, the Blank Foundation will have invested $22 million into the area’s revitalization.
When the Blank Foundation reached out to the community, the number one thing they heard from residents was “I need a job.” They created Westside Works, a workforce development center that provides free job training and opportunities in areas such as construction, culinary arts, health care, IT, and soon, childcare. To date, Westside residents involved in the program have earned over $12 million. Over 160 residents in the program were placed in construction jobs and helped to build the new stadium.
Juliet Peters teaching students at West Nest. Image from Blank Foundation.
But the pride of the program sits inside the stadium’s 300-level concourse. Called West Nest, the largest concession stand in the stadium is run by culinary graduates or students in training at Westside Works. “We’re revitalizing a part of the city that has maybe been neglected,” says Juliet Peters, Westside Works culinary instructor and creator of the program, which has placed over 60 residents in full-time jobs at restaurants across Atlanta. “We’re not throwing money at a problem. We’re trying to provide opportunity.”
Peters is a former chef and culinary instructor from New York. She moved into corporate dining after relocating to the area eight years ago, first for King & Spalding, and eventually with Blank, Home Depot, and the Atlanta Falcons. When she heard about the program, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it. “I had a great run at King & Spalding,” she says, “but I decided that I was getting of a certain age and maybe I wanted to do a little more with my life.”
Peters was chosen three years ago to lead the program, an intense six-week course that introduces students to things like knife skills, kitchen safety, and also prepares them for the ServSafe test, a manager’s certification that lasts five years, all completely free of charge. On Saturday night, Peters oversaw 12 graduates from the culinary academy and an additional 20 trainees as they launched West Nest, its name and menu chosen by the students to represent their Westside roots.
Carrichia Clark in the kitchen. Image by Kevin Liles.
Carrichia Clark, a 45-year-old graduate who will be cooking at West Nest, went through years of struggle before finding the culinary program. She says she is grateful to the Blank family and for the newfound confidence she has gained from graduating from the program, though she admits she was apprehensive. “It is scary and exciting at the same time,” she says of her new job. “When you are so low-down and you struggling to climb out of that hole, you think, I didn’t know how awesome it would feel to come out of that.”
The program places graduates in a number of roles in restaurants, hotels, and cafeterias throughout the city. “I have six weeks to make them fall in love with it,” says Peters. “It’s not just handing out jobs. The partnerships we have with different industry folks, they know the quality of the students they’re going to get out of this program.” Not everyone graduates; for some, the restaurant industry is not a perfect match, and others may not have the opportunity to work at the stadium depending on their strengths. “I act as a liaison between student and employer,” Peters explains, “so I will help place them and help to decide where they’ll be a good fit.”
“Over the three years, we’ve been able to place over 450 Westside residents in living-wage jobs. Almost 80% of them have retained their job after one year, which is a pretty high number,” says Fernandez.
West Nest restaurant inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Image by Blank Foundation.
The program has also had a positive effect on the students, some of whom have been incarcerated, homeless, addicted to drugs, and struggled in any number of ways for years. Clark was living in an Atlanta shelter with her children before joining the program and has been sharing her journey with other members of the community to inspire them to get involved. “This program has given us so much,” she says. Since proceeds from the West Nest will go back into the program to fund future classes, she’s thankful to have the opportunity to give back. “It gives me an opportunity to say thank you back to them for helping me get back on my feet.”
“The community revitalization effort is really focused on transformation, with an emphasis on people in terms of how we can uplift and provide access to opportunity here as the area changes and allow for them to stay here and benefit from this change,” says Fernandez
“I’ve learned I’m a pretty good cook,” Clark tells me. “But, when other people besides your kids tell you your food is good, it builds confidence,” she says, getting emotional. “And you think, I’m good. I can do this.”