A Dream Deferred

Former Black Panther Fahim Minkah seeks redemption for a drug-infested neighborhood, but the Southern Dallas Development Corporation turns its back

Fahim Minkah, who can wax rhapsodic on the subject, knew exactly what he wanted for his roller-skating rink. He has spent much of his downtime visiting area rinks and deciding what he likes and doesn't like, observing what works and what doesn't.

He wanted a 28,000 square foot concrete open-span building with a gabled roof and a floor made from Northern maple. Minkah has seen too many rinks in poorer communities that have been converted from abandoned buildings. Frequently, the rinks have posts holding up their ceilings and floors of painted concrete, which increases the chances of skater injury.

"We didn't want to run no raggedy-ass building," Minkah says. "If we couldn't do it state-of-the-art, we didn't want to do it. We wanted to set an example for other entrepreneurs. We wanted to set a standard and prove it could be done and inspire others who didn't think we could do it."

Building the rink right would take about $1.5 million, and the money pledged by the SDDC was only the beginning. Minkah ultimately would cobble together promises of money from three sources--$500,000 from the SDDC; $500,000 from a HUD 108 loan under the City of Dallas Neighborhood Renaissance program; and a $400,000 loan from a bank.

In applying for the HUD loan, Minkah was subjected to a lengthy bureaucratic process, but it went surprisingly well. First a neighborhood committee endorsed his project. Then it was sent to the staff in the city's Economic Development Department, who endorsed it as well. Finally, the city council voted to approve it. From there, it was supposed to be sent to Washington for HUD approval.

Minkah originally thought a conventional loan from a lending institution would be the hardest to get. But by this winter, he had two local banks vying to lend him $400,000. On the same day that the city council approved the HUD loan, Texas Commerce Bank gave Minkah a written commitment for $400,000.

SDDC was going to supply the final piece of the rink's financial puzzle. It was the piece Minkah was the least worried about. After all, SDDC's Jim Reid had been the project's biggest champion, and Reid's staff had given Minkah technical support.

The SDDC board had approved spending $50,000 on the feasibility study that showed the project was viable. The board conditionally approved lending Southern Skates the $500,000, provided it could secure the other funds it needed. That commitment helped leverage the other funds. Reid wrote to banks telling them that the SDDC "is prepared to commit $500,000 to this project." And the SDDC board authorized advancing the United Front $55,000 of the loan to develop architectural studies in order to determine whether the project could be built within the allotted budget.

Southern Skates was finally on the fast track to becoming a reality. The ever-optimistic Minkah began learning roller-rink management by apprenticing himself to Gil Hudson, whose family has owned and operated a Duncanville rink for the past 23 years.

By the fall of 1996, Fahim Minkah was confident that he would soon be breaking ground on the roller rink. So was the United Front board, which was preparing itself for the new business by getting rid of inactive members and replacing them with people who had bookkeeping and managerial experience. The board wanted to fill the top two positions at the rink with people it knew and trusted. The board asked Minkah to manage the rink and its treasurer, Elizabeth Reece, who had catering experience, to run the snack bar. The board sent Reece to Cedar Valley Community College to take a food management certification course.

The first snag Minkah hit was when Jim Reid gave Minkah the application for the HUD 108 funds, which the SDDC had paid a consultant to prepare with help from SDDC staff. In proofreading the application, Minkah discovered that SDDC was listed as being entitled to one-third of the profits from Southern Skates. A rattled Minkah told Reid that that was not part of the deal. Reid assured Minkah that the SDDC board did not want his profits.

October, November, and early December brought nothing but encouraging news. Minkah found a construction company he trusted, and when it came in as the low bidder, he and SDDC awarded it the contract. In November, staff in the city's Economic Development Department approved the United Front's applications for the HUD 108 funding, and a $50,000 Enterprise Community grant from the city.

"EDD believes that an additional benefit of this project is that it will act as a magnet to attract other investment to this area of the city," wrote EDD Director Mike Marcotte in a memorandum to the city's housing director. "Given the information provided in the project's business plan, EDD believes that the project will cash flow and pay back the loan."

On December 11, the city council voted to approve the United Front's application for the HUD 108 loan. The same day, Texas Commerce Bank sent United Front a letter of confirmation for a $400,000 loan for Southern Skates. Around the same time, Reid told the building contractor that as soon as word came from Washington that the HUD loan was approved, he could release funds to start building the skating rink.

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