Artist rendering of the Edison Center. Image courtesy of the Edison Arts Foundation.

This Saturday, the Edison Arts Foundation will host a Groundbreaking and Community Holiday Celebration from 10am to 2pm at 7100 West Fuqua to mark the start of the transformation of the blighted Willowridge 1980’s era retail center into The Edison Center, an innovative 12.5-acre mixed-use Arts and Culture Town Center District.

The Edison Center Master Plan was developed over two phases and includes the Edison Lofts, 126-unit affordable housing complex with early literacy Pre-K (that already opened in July 2021); a 32,000 sq. ft. Cultural Arts Center with a 400-seat theater; a Community Health Clinic; After-School Youth Center; Festival Park Outdoor Greenspace; two small business incubators; and affordable retail spaces.

The Ensemble Theatre, Cultural Arts Initiative’s Houston Urban Nutcracker, Jazz Houston, Fort Bend ISD, Houston Business Development, Inc., Texas Culinary Center, Legacy Health, and many other non-profit partners are slated to deliver holistic programming for all ages.

Charity Carter

“Once completed, The Edison Center will leverage Fort Bend Houston’s talented multicultural arts community to create a catalyst for community revitalization through the arts,” said Charity Carter, founder of the Edison Arts Foundation, a Black-led 501(c)3 non-profit fine arts organization has provided arts and cultural programming and afterschool academic enrichment for Fort Bend Houston’s families since 2013.

According to Carter, the Center is expected to draw 80,000 visitors annually generating millions in economic impact, attract new businesses, jobs, and will create opportunities to increase the quality of life for area residents.

Ahead of the groundbreaking event, the Defender spoke with Carter in an exclusive interview, to learn more about the genesis of this project and its ultimate goals.

DEFENDER: What was the inspiration for this project? When did the vision first reveal itself?

CHARITY CARTER: The inspiration comes from giving honor to my mother and father (Robert and Bertha Edison) who gave me the country name of Robertha. This project, this mission started in 2015. Our foundation, currently located in Mo City, we saw the need when the economy shifted. Parents had to make decisions. We wanted to bridge the gap by offering quality programming in the arts—arts classes, dance classes. So, we picked up with after school and we brought them to our facility. So, we’ve been on the path of expanding and relocating to provide more impact for the Ft. Bend Houston community. So, in honor of my parents the Edison Arts Foundation is on the path to provide revitalization for Ft. Bend Houston through the arts.

DEFENDER: I’ve seen the words “renaissance” and “revitalization” used to describe this project. Can you speak on those?

The once thriving shopping center space at 7100 W. Fuqua in Briargate (Ft. Bend/Houston). Photo courtesy of the Edison Arts Foundation.

CARTER: The area of the relocation of this project is Ft. Bend Houston (7100 West Fuqua). It was once a thriving, affluent, African American community. And over the course of 20 years the neighborhood and the community has shifted. Blight set in. Deterioration. And so, without what we call gentrification we have the opportunity to, in the condition that [the property is in], revitalize it without flighting people out and bringing people in as opposed to leaving the community where it is and bringing us up to a greater quality and standard of living and lifestyle that once was, and even better. So, renaissance just means rebirth, revitalization where we are trying to rehabilitate a thriving, proud and prideful community that has so much rich culture and history, nestled in Ft. Bend County, one of the greatest, most economically impactful African American counties in the United States.  When I was a young girl, my mom would take me to the Weiners and the McDonalds on West Fuqua, and we would visit my aunt. And I did back-to-school, layaway shopping at that Weiners. There are so many wonderful stories of community members or people who grew up in that neighborhood seeing the property like this (in disrepair). We have to take it back. So, I’m thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this vision and to bring life back this center

DEFENDER: It sounds like revitalization without gentrification.

CARTER: Yes. I want to give recognition to Congressman Al Green who coined that phrase. We invited hm to come out, and we thought it was going to be a long process. But when he saw the project, he jumped at the opportunity. And within hours, not days, not weeks, but hours, he came out to the center. He had his hands behind his back and he walked so interestingly, intrigued. And he said, “This is revitalization without gentrification. And we coined that [phrase]. And so, we’ve been on the path with some other wonderful arts champions and project champions like our County Commissioner Grady Prestige. He is the chair for our Capital Campaign. We have Complete Communities, the City of Houston, the George Foundation, Houston Endowment, our district city councilwoman and Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex-Tatum. They are wonderful champions of this project, and they believe in this vision.

DEFENDER: Reading about what the project entails (residential space, education, after school, the arts space, retail, health) it sounds like the pre-integration Black community where we had access to everything? Was that what you were trying to create?

CARTER: Yes, so in 2015 we came up with this master plan looking to relocate and expand. One of our parents brought this property to our attention. The property was run down. Most of it was vacant. The Kroger was vacant for probably 20 years. The owners, they were getting fined. There was blight. So, the parent brought this property to our attention. The late councilman Larry Green saw what we were trying to do and he helped us to build a partnership/relationship with the City of Houston. SO, we saw this master plan in 2015, 2016 and here we are 2021. But my country roots, knowing that a small community takes care of itself, we meet each other’s needs. We are able to go to our neighbor, churches or those other organizations within the community to help us meet our needs. We have to get back to that, especially since the pandemic. The pandemic shifted and pivoted so much, and taught us what matters. What matters is each other; counting on each other, leaning on each other, helping one another. That’s the collaborative spirit, the collaborative vision that goes with this project: working together to meet each other’s needs. We all have similar needs. As an arts organization, sometimes Black-led organizations don’t have the capacity to have their own space, their own home. And many of them do not. But together, we can share that space, because we all need a stage, we all dance studio space and we all need theatrical space. Or we all need an art room or a classroom. The same thing we have for education or healthcare or businesses. We need each other. One shouldn’t exist without the other. So, this project is about sustainability and what is it going to take for the art sector to sustain itself, and that is all of us working together.

DEFENDER: Do you see this communal approach as a model that can be replicated nationally?

CARTER: I do. In fact, we have gotten a lot of response from leaders and visionaries, as well, about this being a national model. We know what collaboration can do. We can do more together than we can apart. And this is a sustainable model. It’s a national model that can be replicated. If non-profit and for profit or public and private are willing to take that leap and look and think outside the box to sustain a community, a small silo of multiple communities working together to meet the needs of the city or county or that community.    

DEFENDER: Reading the list of collaborators, the Ensemble, Jazz Houston, FBISD, etc., how were you able to get all these entities to buy into this vision and become partners?

CARTER: Well, I’d like to think it was favor. But we are a small organization with high impact. And it didn’t take much, honestly, for organizations to see what we were trying to do. I’m a woman of faith. So, as much as I was praying for them to not see me as a competitor or our foundation and this project as competition, as much as I was praying for them, they were praying for me. They were praying for something like this—an opportunity to where their artists can expand, their programming can expand. They can have a home where they hadn’t had one for 25 years. A place where instead of them going from venue to venue or renting out this school, they can actually have sustainability. They can have a set home and location. So, when we asked, we found out that just as much as we were wanting them, they were wanting something like this.

DEFENDER: What’s the endgame, the overall goal you seek to accomplish?

CARTER: The overall goal to accomplish is opportunity. The opportunity for our culture to flourish and for our culture and our community to know that we are what we need. We, in and of itself, is impactful, is powerful, is a story. We have a story to tell. And we can bring that story to the table. Our children can know that they have enough; that who they are and what they are is enough. And to believe and to dream and to think big. Don’t be scared. A “no” is just temporary until you get a “yes”. To think big so they can empower themselves to empower their communities. And don’t be afraid to work together. The endgame would be a complete project. This is an almost $2o million project, and we’ve raised $14 million of that. And we have a long list of foundations and philanthropic organizations and individuals that we still haven’t reached yet. So, we want everyone to have a sense of pride in community, to know that they deserve the best. And if we take care of it and we work together, we can leave a legacy for our children, for our community that’s coming behind us. So, our young students who we’ve raised, now, they are graduating and gone on with us, I charge them every time to come back and to walk the halls and have a sense of ownership. They come back and say, “I did this.” We can pass this on to them, and they can pass this on to those behind them. That we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and to dream big. That’s the endgame for us.

DEFENDER: So, a big shindig this Saturday, the groundbreaking. When will this space be open for business?

CARTER: So, this weekend is our groundbreaking and a community holiday celebration. We are celebrating with the community our accomplishments and letting them know that we are putting a shovel in the ground. That dirt is about to be moved. And we want the community to know what is to come. We’ve done our best to try to engage the community. We want to continue engaging the community. So, we’re giving away bikes, toys, food. We have a Kona Ice Truck, giving away snow cones even in the cold. We’re giving boosters and vaccinations. We have so much. We have Santa and his helpers. So, we’re excited about that. But hopefully, once we get started at the beginning of the first of the year (2022) with Phase 1 of demolition and site work, this is a 10-12-month project. So, it is our goal that come December 2022, that we will have a grand opening and we will celebrate with Christmas programming and holiday celebrations from the Ensemble Theatre and for Cultural Arts Initiative to do their Houston Urban Nutcracker, and more.