The namesake East St. Louis–based foundation of celebrated Olympian and philanthropist Jackie Joyner-Kersee has shared design plans for a new, youth-focused educational and resource hub for urban agriculture and entrepreneurialism known as the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Food, Agriculture, and Nutrition Innovation Center (JJK FAN).
Launched in April, JJK FAN—borne from a private-public partnership between the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Illinois Extension—will be housed in a 12,000-square-foot former office complex in East St. Louis, with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW) overseeing a five-phase build-out of the space to include multiple indoor and outdoor agricultural demonstration sites along with “space for youth and community members to engage in hands-on training and certification programs related to growing food, ag innovation, and nutrition for improving health and performance, as well as space for athletics and physical training,” according to a press release from the firm, which maintains offices in New York, Houston, and Charlottesville, Virginia.
Along with the larger project launch, a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first part of the center was held in April.
East St. Louis–based nonprofit Lansdowne UP donated the property to the JJK Foundation. The new center will be used to house staff of the foundation and its Winning in Life program, along with the University of Illinois Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and Danforth Center’s JJK FAN Center staff.
“Education and opening endless opportunities for youth in STEAM-Ag in East St. Louis is at the core of this collaboration. Even though we’re three individual organizations, we sync and work as one,” said Joyner-Kersee, who serves as founder and CEO of the JJK Foundation, in a statement.
The recipient of six Olympic Medals—including three gold medals—won over four different Olympics games in the heptathlon and long jump events, Joyner-Kersee was born and raised in East St. Louis, a small southwest Illinois city located directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. Once a prosperous industrial center, East St. Louis, like many Rust Belt cities, later fell into a steep decline in the mid-20th century and has historically struggled with high unemployment and crime rates. In 2021 it ranked as the poorest city in Illinois. (Along with the larger region, East St. Louis was deluged by recent record-breaking torrential rainfall; just yesterday officials declared a state of emergency in the flood-stricken city.)
The JJK was first established in 1988 to inspire, educate, and open new proverbial doors for young people in East St. Louis by providing them with the tools and resources needed to thrive in academics, athletics, and leadership. As noted by the foundation, it sets out to provide East St. Louis youth with “the opportunity to win in life.” The newly established JKK FAN further hones the foundation’s larger mission by offering community-based programs in STEAM+Ag, nutrition, food production, physical fitness, and more. Similar to large swaths of its larger Missourian neighbor across the Mississippi, East St. Louis is very much a food desert although grassroots initiatives have been launched in recent years to provide its residents with easier access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.
As for the NBW-helmed design of the new center, it “focuses on youth engagement, athletics, health and nutrition, and economic expansion through metropolitan food production.” As detailed by the firm, the design vision for the large JJK FAN campus aspires to:
- Interweave spaces dedicated to athletic performance, education, and farming with the urban fabric of East St. Louis
- Foster synergy between all three groups through shared spaces and collaboration
- Create outdoor spaces and demonstration areas where community and global citizens connect to learn about community supported agricultural systems, food innovation, entrepreneurialism, and economic development
- Create a campus environment that not only benefits the youth but the community as a whole
- Improves the urban fabric through the management of stormwater, and added tree canopy for shade and air filtration
- Provide new and improved park space to the community for passive recreation
- Create new connections to surrounding communities and the river
- Invite local artists to contribute their voices and that of their communities
- Facilitate future growth so that as programs evolve and grow, the campus can grow with them.
- Create a healthy and vibrant place for people of all ages
“This project speaks to the importance of connecting human and societal health with the health of the land and the environment,” said Thomas Woltz, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz, in a statement. “Through education and training, we can empower a new generation to steward the land and understand everything it gives us.”
Joining the JJK FAN facilities in East St. Louis, the JJK Foundation has future plans to realize a larger sports and recreation complex on the St. Louis campus, including multiple fields for baseball, softball, and other athletic pursuits, along with a field house and 200-meter track, sand volleyball courts, venue for indoor street sports, and a 100-meter outdoor track.
“The landscape and architecture will support programs focused on supporting the youth of ESL and igniting their imagination to the possibilities provided by educational and economic opportunities in food and agricultural enterprises,” explained NBW.
The project is expected to be completed within three years, as St. Louis–based NBC affiliate KDSK reported in April.