By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Fahim Minkah doesn't know what to tell the children. They were counting on him, believed in him, and now they don't think he can deliver.
The former Black Panther, auto mechanic, and community organizer promised the children in South Oak Cliff that he would help make their lives better. He started to make good on that promise in the late 1980s, when he organized a group of men to patrol squalid apartment complexes that were being preyed upon by dopers and drug dealers.
Then, in the early 1990s, after he helped push the drug scourge out of the neighborhood, he dreamed of bringing hope where fear and decay festered. His plan was simple: build a roller skating rink in a part of South Dallas that had few, if any, recreational outlets for children and families (see "A Dream Deferred," May 29, 1997).
For the last eight years, Minkah has had to explain to the children why the plan has been continually delayed and ambushed by the very people who are supposed to help communities like theirs. When the Dallas City Council rescued the project last August, Minkah thought he was done having to explain.
But the skating rink he thought for sure would be built by now is still hopelessly stalled, this time by bureaucratic forces in City Hall.
"I'm ashamed to face the kids in my community," Minkah says. "These kids who are 16 now were 7 and 8 when I first started talking about the project. I don't know what to say to them anymore. They don't believe it will ever happen."
Minkah thought the hardest part of his skating rink project would be getting the land. He and the United Front, a nonprofit anti-drug and economic development organization he founded, set their sights on a two-acre lot that had been a favorite haunt of drug traffickers and other criminals.
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 Corp. after the thrift failed--to donate the land to them in return for cleaning up the property and keeping it tended.
But getting financing for the roughly $1.5 million rink, which Minkah named Southern Skates, proved a much bigger hurdle. Minkah thought he had cleared it when the Southern Dallas Development Corp. decided to shepherd the project. A nonprofit corporation dedicated to developing businesses in long-neglected areas of town, particularly south of the Trinity River, the SDDC had a special lending program primarily to assist nonprofit organizations such as the United Front.
The SDDC invested $100,000 in pre-development work on the rink, from marketing surveys that demonstrated the need and interest for Southern Skates to a business plan that showed the rink was economically feasible. In February 1996, SDDC President Jim 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 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 secured the rest of the money. He won a $400,000 commitment from Texas Commerce Bank (now Texas Chase Bank) and $500,000 from a federal Housing and Urban Development loan program funneled through the city of Dallas Neighborhood Renaissance program.
By Christmas 1996, the rink looked like it was going to become a reality. Then the SDDC, after devoting two years and $100,000, backed out. The agency's loan committee voted to deny United Front's loan, citing among other things insufficient cash flow and inexperienced management. No matter that SDDC's own commissioned business plan showed the rink would have enough cash flow to operate. And no matter that Minkah, a lifelong skater with years of experience working with young people and operating his own business--an auto repair shop--was going to manage the rink.
The project looked to be dead in the water. But Minkah refused to give up. The money the SDDC was supposed to loan the United Front was from federal Community Development Block Grant funds that the city had given to the SDDC. Minkah convinced the Community Development Commission to take the money back and loan it directly to him.
The commission voted unanimously to do so, and last August the city council formally adopted the commission's plan.
Foolishly, Minkah thought all his troubles were behind him. He expected to break ground on Southern Skates by October. It's now June, and he's not even close. The city staff has thrown up one bureaucratic roadblock after another. For instance, they asked for an updated business plan, then took months before cutting a check to pay for it.
In addition to causing obvious disappointment, the delays may cause the building costs to escalate above the initial calculations.
"The city staff--on the management level--never fails to see an opportunity as anything but an excuse for delay," says Minkah. "Long before now, we could have closed on the contract and determined the conditions and terms with the United Front."
Minkah originally thought his project was caught in typical red tape. But now he believes the city manager's office has purposely bogged things down. But he doesn't know why.