In Fund We Do Not Trust

I am starting to feel awfully bad for Leo Barron Hicks, the administrator of the embattled South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund. In November, the Observer ran a cover story about the fund's history of making lousy loans to business owners who wind up making busy work for folks in the City Attorney's Office; the city's tossed away some $350,000 doling out dough to people who can't pay back their small-business loans or just refuse to make good on their agreements. And most, if not all, of those loans occurred before Hicks became administrator, yet he's the one who has to answer for them when they go rancid.

But he's the guy to call when you have a question like this one: Just when, exactly, is Derrick Mitchem going to open that motor sports museum in the old Bama Pie Co. building on Pennsylvania Avenue, just across the street from Fair Park? A couple of weeks ago I drove by to check on the progress, and the place looks more abandoned than ever. Apparently, new windows went in just after the cover story ran in November, but any suggestion that it's a construction site is more rumor than reality. It still looks right at home amidst the weed-covered lots that surround the historic building.

As reported last fall, Mitchem's been trying to get the museum open since 2000, when he bought the building for $50,000. Back then he said he'd need $600,000 to rehab the place and got $29,000 of that from the trust fund—and another $290,000 from the city in community development block grant money and still $45,000 more from the South Dallas Development Corp. Council member Leo Chaney, whose district includes the Fair Park area, said last November that Mitchem was having trouble because the "city has been slow cutting the checks for his contractors," but vowed that the museum would be open by the holidays—a promise Hicks also made. "It's taken longer than anybody wanted," he said, "and we have high hopes for it." So, then, what gives four months later?

"We are still working with Mr. Mitchem, but as far as I know it's not open," Hicks says. "We're still hopeful it will be open soon. I just can't address the question of its status."

Those who could--Karl Zavitkovsky, head of the Office of Economic Development, and his second-in-command, Lee McKinney--didn't return calls. Neither did Chaney. And Mitchem has been unreachable.

That's bad enough. But it gets a little worse. On the same day I drove by the Bama Pie building, I went over to Leo Batie's Subway franchise on Grand Avenue to grab a sandwich. Batie's long been held up by the trust fund as an example of how the fund's supposed to work: On May 1, 2002, Batie got a $50,000 loan from the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund to open his franchise, which was so successful he opened another on Gaston Avenue, and yet a third was supposed to open on Bexar Avenue in the trust fund area. He got $25,000 to open that third location, in fact.

So it was more than a little surprising to discover that Batie's Grand Avenue Subway shop is no longer open. Hicks didn't even know it was closed till a board member informed him it had gone out of business. Turns out Leon Batie's in the National Guard and in Afghanistan, and his brother Christopher's been running the franchises in his absence. Apparently, he wasn't as good at it as his brother. And so, another loan goes bad, and the trust fund endures one more bit of bad publicity.

"But I have been contacted by the property manager for that particular development strip," Hicks says. "Subway's corporate offices have contacted the property manager, and Subway is interested in putting another franchisee in that location." Hicks says whoever assumes the franchise would also "assume the trust fund loan, so everyone will be served if and when this happens. That way the trust fund won't lose money, and the community won't lose a valuable and successful service."

Trust fund—the phrase is starting to sound like an oxymoron. —Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky