Spinning wheels

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.

Other people think they know the reason. Councilman Larry Duncan says, "This is all too typical of what happens when the council has decided to do something and the [city manager's] staff doesn't like it. It gets bogged down in the bowels of City Hall."

Mike Daniel agrees. A civil rights attorney who is representing the United Front in a breach of contract suit against the SDDC, Daniel says, "It's clearly part of the city's long-standing problem of not spending money--Community Development Block Grants and Neighborhood Renaissance funds--on minorities and poor people in a timely fashion."

What does the city manager's office have against a skating rink in South Dallas? The answer to the question is a little complicated.

In 1993, City Manager John Ware and then-Mayor Steve Bartlett hatched a plan to revitalize downtown Dallas. Calling the plan Intown Housing, the council voted to borrow $25 million in HUD funds for developers to create pricey inner-city lofts. Neighborhood and housing activists were outraged that the city wasn't seeking any federal money to help low-income people with pressing housing and economic development needs.

So Councilman Duncan and former Councilman Domingo Garcia, in Duncan's words, held the Intown Housing issue "hostage" until the city staff and council agreed to apply for another $25 million in HUD money to be used in a Neighborhood Renaissance Program to stem the deterioration in several poor neighborhoods.

The city staff wasted no time on the downtown housing project, but the Neighborhood Renaissance program languished. In fact, many of the downtown lofts were built and opened before the city even applied for the second pot of $25 million. HUD approved those funds in December, ostensibly clearing the way for the city to draw down on the loan and get the myriad projects--including Southern Skates--off the ground.

Gene Shipman, assistant city manager over the Neighborhood Renaissance program, blames the skating rink delays on the bank, not the city. "I think Mr. Minkah's bank loan wasn't in place until recently. I'm certain that was the problem."

Minkah vehemently disagrees. He says the bank was committed from day one. Texas Chase Bank representatives did not return calls for this story.

Shortly after the city council voted to loan the United Front $500,000 last August, a meeting was held with Minkah, the bank, and a member of the city's economic development staff. The bank and city said they wanted an updated business plan, which had originally cost the SDDC $13,000.

The person who originally did the plan--who was recommended by the SDDC and who Minkah believes charged too much--refused to update the plan at no charge. Next, he turned to the Bill Priest Institute, a small business-development outfit that is part of the Dallas County Community College District. The plan provided by an employee of the institute was substandard, Minkah says.

He found someone else to do it. But the city took so long to release the funds to pay the consultant, he got miffed and took on other jobs. Minkah finally located yet another person to do it, but almost three months had elapsed.

The city staff then had questions about the revised plan, particularly concerning the project's financial viability. "The financial projections seemed too good to be true to them," Minkah says. "Any formula we used showed that the project would cash-flow and make a profit the first year. They didn't think the neighborhood income level was high enough to support the rink. They said the people here don't spend much money on kids. I told them I thought that was an insult."

Then the city and bank brought up some other problems. The bank was concerned that the suit Minkah had filed against the SDDC would lead a judge to delay the whole project.

"There's nothing in the suit to possibly lead them to that conclusion," says Daniel, who quickly put to rest the bank officials' concerns.

The city said that it and the bank wanted the United Front to hire an experienced inner-city roller rink manager. "They were manufacturing pretexts and excuses to keep the city from spending money they're supposed to be spending," Daniel says. "It's not there to hoard."

Once the manager issue was resolved--Minkah eventually located someone who fit the bill to run Southern Skates--the city had a problem with the way the deal was structured. Minkah wanted to use the money from the city first, during construction, because interest payments would be delayed. "That way we wouldn't be burdened with interest payments during construction," he says.

But the city wanted Minkah to use the bank money first, because it had been promised the first lien on the project. "The point is that providing preferential terms and city money entices the private market into helping," Daniel says. "That's what the city wants to happen. Having gotten the bank in by promising that their money would be the last used, the city snookered Fahim and said, 'Oops.'

"It's the city's job to spend community development money. It's not in a bank drawing interest, so spending it last doesn't gain anything."

The latest obstacle the city staff put in Minkah's way came just a few weeks ago. They told him the project must have an updated appraisal--something he could have gotten months ago, had he known about it. Meanwhile, the builder says that if the city doesn't sign off on the contract soon, the prices he originally quoted on materials will go up, and so will the cost of the project.

"It's amazing in the same period of time that the Southern Skates project has been in process, the Intown Housing money has been secured, the houses have gone up, and people moved in. And this is a much less complicated deal," Daniel says. "It doesn't involve nearly as much money. And let's face it, it was less risky. We know people will skate. They didn't know people would move downtown."

Councilman Duncan thinks the city manager's office is purposely dragging its feet on this and the other Neighborhood Renaissance projects in hopes that if they wait long enough, there will be no council members left who remember the initial promises.

But Fahim Minkah will remember. And so will the children.


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