Amazing But True: City's Not Giving Up On, Um, "Problematic" Bama Pie Project

Longtime Friends of Unfair Park probably don't need a recap concerning the tragicomic goings-on at the former Bama Pie Co. building across the street from Fair Park. This blog is littered with stories about the more than $200,000 in city and federal money spent on a proposed "motorsports museum" and mechanics school that's been up on blocks for the better part of a decade.

Want a synopsis? Here's the most recent from January, around the time First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers told Unfair Park his office was gathering docs to see if, finally, it was time to sue Derrick Mitchem and take the building -- which former council member Leo Chaney once told us would be open by Christmas 2005. The city's only been threatening litigation since August 2006.

So, then, it was a little more than stunning to see Bama Pie at the very top of the Landmark Commission's agenda for its meeting on Monday -- with Mitchem as the applicant. (It's on the consent part of the agenda, meeting the commissioners won't even discuss the application.) It says that one month ago, he applied to make significant exterior changes to the main entry, the courtyard entry and other protected facades.

What in the wide, wide world of motorsports, A.C. Gonzalez?

"We are trying to get to a point where either he can finish up his originally intended project or not without us spending any more money than has been spent," the assistant city manager tells Unfair Park today. "We've been working with Mr. Mitchem, and he's been showing some additional progress, but we're working through that process. What he has going on with Landmark Commission is to help move it in the direction of having a project completed."

So, so much more after the jump.

Gonzalez and I spoke for quite a while about Bama Pie and the museum -- about which Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, a former chair of the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund, told be back in November 2005, "Who in the hell wants a motor sports museum right there? Black folks ain't interested." What follows are my Q's and his A's.

This project's been more or less dead ever since it was first proposed a decade ago. Chaney told me this would be open by Christmas 2005. [First Assistant City Attorney] Ryan Evans told me four years ago the city had lost patience with it and was considering litigation. In February of last year, the city opted to "reprogram" $92,522 in what remained of the community development block grant, labeling Mitchem's museum as "project terminated." As Dave Cook [then the city's chief financial officer] told me last year, "The project clearly did not go as it was intended." And in January of this year, city officials told me a lien was filed on the building, the city was about to take back the building, and that was that. And now it's back on Landmark's agenda for Monday? How'd that happen?

For all the things you've mentioned, there's more than enough reason to be concerned. We have been for quite some time, but we're still trying to see that the project is completed, and that we can achieve what was originally intended. I know there's been ... [He pauses] This project has not gone at all by the original timing that was anticipated, and there's all kinds of reason he's had about it, but as you were mentioning earlier, we were looking to get to a point of legal action, and we're now seeing progress that's at the very least encouraging -- although, again, as you said, there's more than enough to be concerned about it.

I called Bowers about this yesterday, and he said, no, the city never filed suit. He said, and I quote, "We are still collecting documents from different departments and that we are assessing our position and whether we had claims we could bring."

[Mitchem] had been given a few weeks to respond, which he did, a month ago. That's what Chris was alluding to in terms of the interaction with him and his attorney. Again, this action on the part of Landmark is their effort to try to resolve one of the issues, which had been a barrier in his moving forward.

And that barrier is ...?

I don't know that I understand all the specifics, but he needed to get some approval to make other modifications to the building.

Last I heard, in January, the city was going to file a lien on the building.

The city had talked about it, and those efforts got us to the table to talk about what was going to be done or not done. It was with those conversations that options were put on the table, and what he started telling us was he was going to move forward with the project, and we'll make sure there's consistent progress.

The city's yanked the remaining $92,000 in federal grant money, and city docs show $197,478 has been expended on the project with nothing to show for it. Does he have the money to pay for this?

As far as any observation about that, I am not going to respond. He knows what he has to do, and we're giving him some additional opportunity to make good on the original proposal.

I hate to ask, but is there a time line in place?

At this point we're waiting to see what comes out of this next effort and take it one step at a time. We don't have a hard time line in place. We just want to make sure there's an indication on his part he's not just letting it lie, and the fact it's at Landmark and there's been other communication, we're seeing some progress.

Every time I write about this, people are appalled -- they say it's the poster child for how CDBG money is abused, unaccounted for and written off. Someone asked me the other day, "How do you make a fortune off the city?" I told them, "Write a grant for a race-car museum." How do you explain how the city's let this go for so long without holding anyone accountable?

I am not going to pretend this hasn't been a project without problems. It's a problematic project that got going years ago, and, possibly, some of the assumptions that were made going into it may have been overly optimistic about what was going to be done, etc. We've been working to try to get a legitimate use out of that building based on what we've invested and get a project that achieves what had been talked about it. It's not without some modifications and a great deal of patience on the city's part, but we're hopeful this comes to fruition. This is a problem project. This is not what we'd normally want to see and what we don't normally see. There are a lot of other projects that get federal money that move forward with minimal amount of hitches. But this one is on that outlier of problematic projects.

And now, the city's given the OK to put a classic-car museum on city-owned property at Fair Park. Won't that compete with Mitchem's project at this late date?

It's the energy of a lot of things in one place that compliments rather than completes. He's also looking to have a mechanics school and the educational component. I could see where there's a working relationship between the two. I don't think it'll be a bad thing.

Do you know how every cent was spent on Bama Pie thus far?

Yes. Well, let me ... [He pauses] We have had a great deal of staff time spent on an evaluation of all of those expenditures. Some of the problems we got into quite frankly on this prohect had more to do with a lot of the paperwork that was required as pat of the federal grant.

Mitchem told me in 2006 that was his problem -- he blamed the delays on "the process" of dealing with federal funds used to makeover a historic property.

When projects are ambitious to begin with and you're working in situations that are challenging, and then there's the additional component of these federal requirements that are all justified and backed by federal regulations, it just makes it more difficult. It's a challenge on the city's and the recipient's end. But in this particular case ... again, this turned out to be an unusually problematic protect. Having said all that, the bottom line is, yes, we have a good handle on where all the money went, but was it spent in a way that would meet all the federal regulations -- Davis-Bacon and all the other things that show the proper procedures were followed?

As we know, $92,000 intended for the project initially has been removed. If he does indeed move forward, will he get it back? Because last I heard, there isn't an MLK Blvd. Business Facade/Revitalization Program -- the project toward which the money had been redirected.

At this time, there's not any plans on our part to spend any more money on the project.

You said, "At this time." Could that change?

Just ... that's my response to that.