By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We wanted to be an activist group that would take up the slack left by the black business community that had failed to develop the community," says Minkah.
The management of the Prince Hall complex let the United Front move into an empty apartment rent-free in 1989, and it served as the group's headquarters for the next six years. But before the organization could get any economic development projects off the ground, its attention was diverted by the drug crisis that was crippling communities south of the river. Minkah met several times with high-ranking police officials, several of whom told him there was nothing more they could do, that they were simply out-manned by dopers and dealers.
"We wanted to prove that something could be done," says Minkah. "We wanted to prove the theory that an atmosphere of intolerance could eradicate drugs on a neighborhood level." With the help of some of his brothers from the Black Panther party, Minkah formed African-American Men Against Narcotics, which spawned patrol groups throughout the city. AAMAN was hailed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as a model crime prevention program, and was replicated in housing projects across the country.
The city gave Minkah's group several grants over the years to conduct anti-drug programs and crime prevention seminars at community centers and schools. Minkah planned to do full-time neighborhood organizing for about five years, then go back to building another private business. But then the skating rink project came along and took over his life.
Minkah knew no one would take his economic development ideas seriously unless his group had something tangible to develop. So Minkah and the United Front set their sights on the empty lot at 2923 Ledbetter, a main thoroughfare through South Oak Cliff, just off Interstate 45.
As part of their anti-drug crusade, Minkah and United Front members borrowed chainsaws and cleared the jungle of overgrowth on the land. Minkah convinced Bright Banc, which owned the land, that the clean-up efforts were keeping city code enforcers off the bank's back. The bank gave the group a two-year contract to maintain the land. Minkah had just about convinced the bank to donate the land to the United Front when the bank went under. In the fall of 1991, after several months of negotiation, Minkah successfully convinced the federally run Resolution Trust Company to deed over the land, which was appraised at $45,000.
Minkah was interested in providing kids with constructive alternatives to gangs and drugs. The neighborhood lacked a recreation center in the immediate area, and the closest ones were overflowing with children. An avid roller skater who speed skates several times a week as an aerobic activity, Minkah thought a roller rink, with speed-skating and roller-hockey teams, would be just what the community needed. A market survey the group conducted within a three-mile area supported Minkah's idea.
But trying to convince people with money that the project would work was another thing. Minkah repeatedly wrote and called the Southern Dallas Development Corporation, which bills itself in promotional literature as "small business' best friend," but he never got a reply.
The SDDC was created in 1989 by the city to help foster development in the areas of the city where traditional financial institutions wouldn't lend money. For several years, as the SDDC struggled to grow and become independent, the city paid the salary of its president, Jim Reid, a former assistant city manager. The city also provided the majority of funding through federal Community Development Block Grants. Over the years, the SDDC supplemented the federal funds with contributions from local banks and began administering several Small Business Association loan programs.
When Minkah finally got Reid to listen to his plans and showed him the property, Reid was interested. The SDDC had a special lending program primarily to assist nonprofit organizations. According to SDDC guidelines, the program was designed to be flexible on things like interest rates and collateral.
For seed money, Minkah and the SDDC went to the City of Dallas in 1994, seeking an Economic Development Demonstration loan. The city council earmarked $50,000 for pre-development of the United Front's roller-rink project. By March of 1995, a feasibility study of the rink had been completed. It included $6,000 of soil testing, $10,000 in design plans accompanying a water-color rendering of the proposed building (which Minkah thought was excessive), and a $10,000 business and marketing plan.
A demographic study showed that there were 52 churches, 39 daycare centers, and 28 schools within a six-mile radius of the Ledbetter site. The project was definitely do-able. In fact, using conservative revenue figures estimated by a locally based skating-rink consultant, the rink was projected to make a profit its first year.
When the pre-development phase was completed, Jim Reid wrote to Minkah, telling him Reid was prepared to ask the SDDC loan committee to lend the United Front $500,000. Reid pledged SDDC's support in helping Minkah find ways to obtain the remaining $900,000 that the rink was estimated to cost.
"I think this is a much-needed project," Reid told The Dallas Morning News at the time. "It's going to take time and energy to get the money, but this is very important for the community and the children," Reid added. "We keep saying that we need things for our children to do in the inner-city neighborhoods, but very little is done about it." (Reid would not discuss the project with the Dallas Observer.)