Mark Shaker claims he’s not a developer—he’s a social worker. A quick glance at his much-anticipated, $25 million project, Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace, might make that statement seem a bit dubious. The 100,000-square-foot space, formerly the Stanley Aviation building, will house some 50 businesses, including restaurants, bars, and shops, so it’s clearly about commerce.

But Shaker credits the lessons he learned while working in Africa to the development of the Stanley project. After hearing about the work in Africa of Dr. Lewis Wall on obstetric fistulas—a childbirth injury resulting from prolonged or obstructed labor—Shaker got in touch with the physician and started doing consulting work for the Worldwide Fistula Fund. He soon became CEO of that organization and built a hospital in Niger that focused on preventing and treating obstetric fistula.

While spending four years in Niger on a medical endeavor may seem to be a far cry from constructing a “food-centric, community-inspired marketplace” in Aurora, Colorado, Shaker only sees similarities. “I’ve worked on various things, but I’ve always worked on complex jigsaw puzzles,” he says. “While running a small nonprofit in Africa, we were building a freestanding, secular maternal health hospital on a Christian missionary compound in a Muslim country, which really complicated tribal politics.”

Over time Shaker says he was able to identify and connect with community stakeholders, finding commonalities and shared values to create an end product that worked for everyone. The tribal chiefs were used to hearing big promises with disappointing results. But as Shaker got to know them and their families, he listened and responded to their needs and slowly established credibility. “If you got the tribal chiefs’ trust and respect, they could snap their fingers and really get everyone to move,” he says.

Almost four years later, Shaker is utilizing those tactics on his new commercial project, along with partners Lorin Ting and Megan Von Wold. “It was a similar thing in northwest Aurora: finding who the chiefs are,” Shaker says. “Who are the people that don’t necessarily have the fancy titles, but that can get things done and know the neighborhood?” The Marketplace’s location straddles Aurora and Stapleton, so the area has residents who have lived there for more than 50 years while witnessing significant demographic shifts that have changed the makeup of their community.

Shaker says he’s repeatedly heard three concerns from the Stanley project’s neighbors—the need for jobs, and the desire to keep the iconic elements of its building intact while removing the giant fence that originally surrounded the space—and he set out to address all three. The Marketplace itself provides new job opportunities, and the businesses that will be located here—including second locations for Rosenberg’s Bagels, Yellowbelly Chicken, and The Infinite Monkey Theorem Urban Winery—are also hiring. (More than 50 businesses will be on-hand on Saturday, September 24, for a career fair.)

The Stanley building, which was formerly used to manufacture aircraft ejector seats, has several iconic elements, including its gray-and-red color scheme, blue neon sign, and giant hangar doors that have been retained and restored. The city of Aurora also granted landmark status for the entire building, and the eyesore fencing has been removed. “It’s the same thing [as what I did in Africa]—it’s really just a different way of looking at development, really engaging people in the community and making them part of the process in an earnest and meaningful manner,” Shaker says.

The initial Stanley businesses—Cheluna Brewery, Stapleton Dental, OPENAir Academy, and Stanley Beer Hall—will all open over the coming several weeks, with the rest launching weekly through mid-October. Even though the Stanley project is a world away from the Nigerian hospital, for him it’s no less challenging or rewarding. “I don’t do jobs—I do passion projects,” Shaker says. “I only like working to do things I truly believe in and completely immersing myself in that. The building of a Worldwide Fistula Fund hospital in Africa and [this project] have each been all encompassing. It’s the only way both of them could get completed.”

Visit: The Stanley Marketplace is located at 2501 Dallas St., Aurora;