By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It should have been a particularly merry Christmas for Fahim Minkah. But instead, the deal that had looked so definite began falling apart. Just days after the United Front began celebrating, Reid sent Minkah an unsigned draft of a letter recommending that United Front add three professionals to its board--an attorney, an accountant, and a marketer--and give an ex-officio seat to the SDDC.
The United Front board, whose by-laws did not provide for any new members, didn't know what to make of the letter. Minkah, suspicious that SDDC was trying to take control of the project, contacted Reid. Reid said the SDDC board wanted to feel more comfortable about the project before it actually lent the money it had pledged.
"I thought the loan committee was already sold," Minkah told Reid.
"So did I," Reid replied.
Reid set up a meeting for Minkah, some of the United Front board members, and two members of the SDDC loan committee. Business consultant Calvin Stephens, City Councilwoman Barbara Mallory-Caraway's appointment to the board, was openly hostile in the meeting. Minkah recalls. Stephens told Minkah that the community did not need the skating rink. He questioned whether people had the disposable income to support the rink.
Hostile questioning, however, was not the worst Stephens had done to stop the rink project. Minkah learned that Stephens had met with assistant city manager Gene Shipman in December and told Shipman the Southern Skates SDDC loan was in trouble. In response, the city had apparently held up United Front's application for the HUD 108 loan, and not mailed it to Washington by the December 31 deadline. (Stephens declined to be interviewed by the Observer.)
When the SDDC loan committee met on January 22 to formally decide on the Southern Skates loan, only 7 of the 13 members showed up. Stephens outlined his concerns with the project. He argued that Minkah did not understand that the deal was high-risk. Stephens also said the United Front needed to add an accountant to its staff to prepare financial information, and that the SDDC needed to provide oversight and input regarding the management of the rink. Other committee members chimed in. One doubted whether the project would make enough money to pay off its loans.
On a 4-3 vote, the committee declined to approve the loan.
Nine reasons were cited by the committee, including insufficient collateral, insufficient cash flow, and inexperienced management. The United Front appealed the decision and lost.
"By the way they were talking, you'd think we were going to manufacture microchips or automobiles," says Minkah. "If any of their reasons were valid, you would think they would have raised them before now."
Mary Watkins is a 68-year-old retired AT&T employee who is rearing her two young great-grandchildren because their mother is a crack cocaine addict. She has lived in South Oak Cliff since 1960 and served as the head of the committee that determined how to spend neighborhood Renaissance funds.
When the committee first heard about the skating rink, it enthusiastically supported it. "This was the perfect location," she says. "There are no recreational facilities in the area for the children. There is nothing for them to do but join gangs. So much could come from this."
Hoping that Minkah can still salvage his project, the neighborhood committee is trying to secure a $500,000 loan from HUD for economic development in the area. Though the committee wants the money earmarked for Southern Skates, Minkah says he cannot get anyone in the city to put in writing a procedure for how he could access the funds--if HUD approves it.
If neighborhood leaders like Watkins were disappointed when SDDC reneged on its offer of support for the rink, city leaders like councilman Don Hicks were downright furious.
"It's astounding," says Hicks, whose wife Evelyn, a real estate attorney, is on the SDDC board and voted for the rink project. "You don't spend $100,000 on a deal, all the people come to the table with the money, and you turn it down. The SDDC exists to make the hard loans. This was exactly the kind of community economic development project that the demonstration loan program was designed to help. Even if it ended up failing, it was a real good effort they were trying to make out there. Everyone in the community knows, if anyone could make it work, Fahim Minkah would be the one. People respect him, from gang people to church people."
The SDDC recently asked the city if it could transfer the funds it was going to loan the United Front to another business loan program. "It's not going to happen, I can assure you," says Hicks. In fact, the city's Community Development Commission has unanimously approved a countermeasure. It voted to take the money away from the SDDC and reprogram it through another channel directly to Southern Skates.
Reid says the SDDC is now reconsidering the loan to the United Front. But Minkah is no longer interested in working with the group that he calls "a bunch of snakes." Minkah spends his time lobbying the city council, attending budget and assorted committee meetings, hoping to persuade the city to give him the money the SDDC had promised.
He has fought too long and too hard for the lot on Ledbetter to give up now. "This dream has been incubating a long time," says Minkah. "That's why I can't let go.