By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The weed-choked, two-acre vacant lot on East Ledbetter Drive was once ground zero in South Oak Cliff's crack cocaine epidemic. In the late 1980s, drug dealers peddled their cheap, potent rocks in the shadows of towering live oak trees. The Johnson grass grew so tall and thick it was a perfect place for thieves to stash stolen loot.
A siege mentality gripped residents of the apartment complexes--Prince Hall, Robin Oaks, East Ledbetter--surrounding the vacant lot. Families slept on their floors to avoid being struck by errant bullets. Parents were afraid to let their children play outside, lest they be shot or lured into a life of drug addiction.
Residents beseeched police for more foot patrols to restore a measure of civility and safety to the neighborhood, but their pleas went unanswered. When help finally did come, it was not from the cops, but from a group of mostly middle-aged African-American family men, led by Fahim Minkah, who organized to quell the violence and reclaim their neighborhood.
Minkah's group, African-American Men Against Narcotics (AAMAN), gained national attention when its members took up arms and walkie talkies and began patrolling the apartment complexes at all hours of the night. Both PBS' Frontline and the FOX Network featured the AAMAN drug fighters in documentaries.
A former high school and college track star and Air Force judo champ, the six-foot-tall, rock-bodied Minkah cut an imposing figure patrolling the apartment complexes brandishing a shotgun. Residents welcomed him and his group. But Minkah, a former member of the original Black Panther party, did not plan to stop at being the neighborhood's de facto police chief. Fighting the drug scourge was a temporary crisis. What the longtime civil rights activist really wanted was to bring about fundamental changes in his community.
So as Minkah's followers successfully battled crack, crooks, and violence, he was hatching other plans. Minkah dreamed of creating something positive and prosperous where havoc and neglect reigned. Before the crack epidemic diverted his labors, Minkah had already formed the nonprofit United Front of Dallas to foster social service and economic development programs in the long-neglected southern sector of the city.
"We needed something in this neighborhood that would generate money, that we could circulate into other programs," recalls Minkah. "We needed something that would serve youth and families, that would promote physical fitness. The best drug prevention is well health."
With a definite dearth of wholesome recreational activities for kids and families, it was no wonder that people were turning to drugs, Minkah reasoned. In what he describes as a kind of poetic justice, Minkah envisioned building a brand-new, state-of-the-art roller-skating rink, and he wanted to put it on the very same wasteland where dealers sold their wares.
Minkah is a life-long skater who taught the four children and five step-children he raised to skate from the age of two. He was tired of having to drive his family 15 miles to skate in Grand Prairie or Duncanville. And there were plenty of families in southern Dallas who didn't have the means to travel that far even if they wanted to.
Minkah dubbed his planned roller rink Southern Skates, and began working toward the day when it would rise from the vacant Ledbetter lot as a beacon to the kids and parents of a beleaguered neighborhood.
That was seven years ago. Since then, Minkah and the United Front have worked tirelessly to turn his vision into a reality. For two years, he and crews of volunteers took it upon themselves to clear the overgrowth from the lot, endearing themselves to the police and the bank that owned the land. Eventually, the Resolution Trust Corporation, which took over the land after the bank that owned it was declared insolvent, agreed to donate the property to the United Front.
It took another four years to find financing for the project. Southern Skates started picking up steam two years ago when the Southern Dallas Development Corporation took Minkah under its wing. A private, nonprofit corporation created by the city to promote the development of small, primarily minority-owned businesses south of the Trinity River, the SDDC pledged $500,000 to the project. The SDDC also helped Minkah find other sources of money for the roller rink.
By early December 1996, Southern Skates was on a roll. All the pieces were falling into place, and Minkah felt confident that the new year would see ground broken on his long-awaited project.
The SDDC had already sunk more than $100,000 into the project, paying for a business plan, feasibility study, environmental impact study, and detailed architectural renderings. The project was sent out for bids, a contractor selected, and a building permit filed with the city--all with the blessing of the SDDC.
But then the wheels fell off. In January, the SDDC suddenly reversed itself. The SDDC loan committee, by a one-vote majority, decided not to give Southern Skates the $500,000 it had previously offered, defying its own lending guidelines and seemingly ignoring the very studies it had commissioned on the project.
Now Minkah and the United Front are on the defensive once again, scrambling for funds to build the rink. Minkah is hoping the city might be able to arrange financing for the project, and is exploring the possibility of suing the SDDC for negligent misrepresentation, among other things.
Minkah has tried not to let himself be consumed by bitterness. On a breezy spring afternoon, he took a visitor to the two-acre lot where he still hopes to build his skating rink. Once again it is clogged with overgrown grass and weeds. The United Front of Dallas stopped mowing many months ago, when its project seemed to be moving full steam ahead.
"We didn't think we needed to keep it up," Minkah says wistfully. "We thought we would be building by now."
Fahim Minkah was born Fred Bell 57 years ago in the deeply segregated East Texas town of Marshall. The son of a farmer-turned-entrepreneur who launched his own wood-pulp hauling company, Minkah graduated from high school with honors and was offered a track scholarship at Southern University in Louisiana.
In a vain attempt to escape the rampant racism of the South, Minkah joined the Air Force instead of heading off to college. Minkah says he quickly discovered that the military bred its own strain of racism. On several occasions, he was punished more severely than white soldiers for similar infractions. He trained as a jet mechanic and starred on his base's judo team, but after two years of the military he was fed up. He received an honorable discharge.
During his first couple of years out of the service, Minkah built and drove race cars. He held down two jobs, trying to save money to go to college. He returned to Texas, became a certified auto mechanic, then entered the University of Texas at Arlington on a track scholarship. Minkah hoped to become a civil rights attorney, but got swept up in the activism of the times--"a tangent that zapped my adult life," he says.
He formed UTA's first black student group, launching a successful movement to ban the campus' antebellum theme, which included the flying of a Confederate flag. But after a few years, Minkah dropped out to become a full-time activist, forming the Dallas chapter of the National Black Panther Party in October 1973.
In 1974, Minkah was looking for a lawyer to bring suit against the Dallas Civil Service Board, which was refusing to comply with its charter by accepting citizen complaints of police misconduct. Minkah found a willing legal advocate in Mike Daniel, a young civil rights attorney then working for Dallas Legal Services.
In turn, Daniel found in Minkah someone who made his job very easy.
"He was a very thorough and capable reader of the law, with a good analytical mind," recalls Daniel, who has been impressed over the years by Minkah's continued devotion to civil rights. "It comes from someplace deep inside him. He is a remarkably unselfish person who really believes in what he is doing."
Daniel and Minkah eventually won the lawsuit, but the victory was bittersweet. That same year, there was a charter election, and the city's voters decided to strip the Civil Service Board of its responsibility for accepting citizen complaints. The move would ultimately lead to the controversial fight for a Citizens Police Review board, a fight that Minkah helped wage.
For the next few years, Minkah and the Panthers organized tenant strikes to force landlords to improve housing conditions, and organized boycotts of businesses that mistreated minorities. To support himself, he trained as a paralegal and worked for Dallas Legal Services. By the late 1970s, the Panthers were floundering. Minkah withdrew the Dallas chapter from the national organization. While he remained involved in grassroots organizing, Minkah decided it was time to become an entrepreneur like his father before him, who had always admonished him to "never work for anyone else."
Minkah went back to school to update his auto mechanic skills and worked for a few body shops until he had enough money to go out on his own. He opened Bell Car Repair, at Fordham and Bonnieview in Southeast Dallas. Within three years, he employed eight mechanics and was earning enough to buy a house for himself, his second wife, and the five children they had between them. For the next 10 years, he operated his business, raised his family, and channeled his activism into ridding the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District of racism. The district was governed by an Anglo board that Minkah saw as particularly hostile to its overwhelmingly minority student population.
By the late 1980s, Minkah's life was in a state of flux. He was forced to move his car-repair shop to a new location. His landlord had let the building fall into disrepair, and it was in danger of being condemned. Car technology had changed, and Minkah had a difficult time finding qualified mechanics. And his second marriage was ending. He decided to leave his business and his marriage and return full time to what he loved best--grassroots organizing. This time, he wanted to focus on spurring economic development, which he had decided was the last best hope for fortifying the African-American inner-city community.
It was about this time that he formally changed his named from Fred Bell to Fahim (Arabic for Intelligent) Minkah (an African word for Justice).
Modeled on a Chicago-based organization, the United Front of Dallas was Fahim Minkah's vision of a Community Chest for black neighborhoods. The idea was to cultivate businesses that would help spur the development of South Dallas. At the same time, United Front would generate income for itself to create new programs, like an African-American scouting project Minkah had developed.
"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.)
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.
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.