Rolling along

A plan to help poor kids finally gets the backing it deserves

Rahim Minkah is finally on a roll.
Six months ago, the Southern Dallas Development Corporation sandbagged the former Black Panther's plan to build a roller skating rink in a once drug-ravaged area of South Oak Cliff ["A Dream Deferred," May 29]. But last week, the Dallas City Council voted to give Minkah and his United Front, a nonprofit anti-drug and economic development organization he founded, the money they need to get the eight-year-old project off the ground.

In a delicious irony, the money the city is channeling to Minkah's Southern Skates project is federal funding the city had originally given to the SDDC, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to developing businesses in long-neglected areas of town, particularly south of the Trinity River.

If all goes according to plan, Minkah hopes to break ground by October on the rink, which he had originally expected to open this summer before the SDDC backed out on a promised loan. He also intends to sue the SDDC, which he claims violated the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act by waiting longer than 30 days from the submission of the loan application to deny it. Minkah also claims the corporation breached a contract to loan his group the money.

Minkah first conceived the idea for the rink in the late 1980s when he formed a grassroots organization that patrolled several local apartment complexes that were overrun by drug dealers and addicts. His group, African-American Men Against Narcotics, received local and national attention for their successful campaign to quell drug-related violence.

Minkah wanted to do more. Noticing a dearth of recreational outlets for neighborhood kids and families, he realized the most potent weapon against drug abuse is providing children with meaningful alternatives. A lifelong skater himself, Minkah decided to build a roller rink on a vacant lot that had been used for illicit activities by drug traffickers and other criminals. Minkah hoped to recycle the profits into other youth programs.

The United Front took several years to acquire the property, which was owned by a savings and loan. Minkah and his associates eventually convinced the savings and loan--and later the Resolution Trust Corporation after the thrift failed--to donate the land to them by cleaning up the property and keeping it tended. But getting financing for the roughly $1.5 million rink proved to be a much bigger hurdle.

Several years ago, Minkah persuaded SDDC president Jim Reid to take him and his embryonic rink under his wing. The SDDC had a special lending program primarily to assist nonprofit organizations under which the United Front would qualify.

The SDDC eventually invested $100,000 in pre-development work on the rink, from marketing surveys that demonstrated the need and interest for the Southern Skates rink to architectural and engineering plans. In February 1996, Reid signed a contract conditionally approving a loan of $500,000 to the United Front, provided it could secure the other $1 million it needed. The SDDC loan would be given under very reasonable terms--3 percent interest, no payments the first two years, and only interest payments the next several years.

With the SDDC's support and guidance, Minkah set about to find the rest of the money. He eventually won a $400,000 commitment from Texas Commerce Bank and $500,000 from a federal Housing and Urban Development loan program funneled through the City of Dallas Neighborhood Renaissance project.

By Christmas the skating rink looked ready to roll. Then the SDDC inexplicably backed out. The agency's loan committee voted to deny United Front's loan, citing among other things insufficient cash flow and inexperienced management.

Minkah was shocked, but after investing so much time and hope, he refused to give up. A shrewd tactician, Minkah discovered that the SDDC was planning to ask the city's Community Development Commission if the corporation could transfer the money it had originally promised to the roller rink to another loan program. Minkah began lobbying the commission members to take the money back from the SDDC and loan it directly to him.

The commission unanimously voted to take the money back from the SDDC and reprogram it through another channel directly to United Front. Last week, the city council formally adopted the commission's plan.

As Minkah was working around the clock to salvage his project, the SDDC was reconsidering the loan to the rink. As recently as two weeks ago, the SDDC sent Minkah a letter saying it would consider lending him the money if they turned the venture into a profit-making business, of which the SDDC would be one-third owner.

Minkah was too amused to be angry. "Why would they suddenly want to be an owner of a project they didn't think would cash flow?" Minkah asks. "And why would we want to be partners with someone we didn't trust?"

Texas Commerce Bank still is committed to loaning money for the rink. Now Minkah is waiting for the HUD funds to start flowing. According to Mary K. Vaughn, the director of housing for the city, HUD approved the city's application for the Neighborhood Renaissance project funds, including the $500,000 for the Southern Skates project. Vaughn can't say for sure when the city will be able to begin drawing down on the loan, but says, "I don't see any reason why [Minkah] can't start in October."

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