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Pie in the Sky

This is the Motorsports Museum as Derrick Mitchem envisions it on his bare-bones Web site.
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By now, perhaps, you know the name Derrick Mitchem, the man behind the long-scheduled Motorsports Museum that's supposed to open in the old Bama Pie Co. building on Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth Avenue across the street from Fair Park. In the short lifespan of Unfair Park, we've had four items about how long it's taken Mitchem to build the museum, which has been in the works since, oh, Y2K was a household word and Osama bin Laden was not. According to a Dallas Morning News story from June 1998, Mitchem bought the building in May 1997 for $48,000 but needed $600,000 to get the thing rehabbed and ready for business. (Two years before that, the city was close to razing the building till its previous owner filed a lawsuit and won an injunction against the city.) The Bama Pie building was also mentioned in our November 2005 cover story on the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund, the city entity for which the word "beleaguered" just about covers it.

If you're unfamiliar with the tale, here's the shortest version possible: Mitchem got a $29,000 grant from the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund in 2001. Got another $290,000 from the city in Housing and Urban Development community development block grant money. Got another $45,000 from the Southern Dallas Development Corp. That's $364,000. Council member Leo Chaney told us last year it would be open by Christmas 2005. It's August 2006. Museum still ain't open. That about covers it.

That is, unless you are Derrick Mitchem. On Monday, I talked to the man behind the museum for half an hour. (Long story short: City officials interviewed in November 2005 provided wrong numbers for Mitchem. I found the correct one on a bare-bones beta version of the Web site for the Motorsports Museum that promises everything from a 2,ooo-square-foot training and auto repair shop to a gallery that will display "vehicles and related equipment and memorabilia.") Turns out Mitchem is not a big fan of mine or of Michael Davis', as Davis has written some things about Mitchem and the Bama Pie building on his blog, Dallas Progress. Mitchem kept getting us confused; he thought the photos on Davis' blog were on Unfair Park and that the figures from Unfair Park came from Dallas Progress. The way Mitchem figures it, he says, we have done everything but call him a thief. Actually, Mitchem says, "You wanna say Leo [Chaney] and [I] stole $360,000."

Not really. We just wonder why it's taken so long to build the museum and how the money's being used. And we have wondered if perhaps the $360,000 couldn't have been put to better use in the Fair Park area, where a car-racing museum doesn't exactly top the list of desperate needs. Other folks have wondered the same thing, among them Lorlee Bartos and Jan Bridges, former board members of the city's Community Development Commission who voted against the Bama Pie project several years back and also want an accounting of the money. And, as former trust fund chairman Dwaine Caraway told me last year, "Who in the hell wants a motor sports museum right there? Black folks ain't interested."

Turns out someone else wants to know what's causing the holdup--and that someone is the very person in charge of the project from the city's end: Ryan Evans, the assistant city manager for economic development. He says the city's close to running out of patience with Mitchem. How close?

"I expected it to be complete by now," Evans says. "For that reason I have asked staff to evaluate where they are, determine compliance issues and determine what remedies there are, both administrative and even legally."

When asked whether he's unhappy about how long it's taken for Mitchem to complete the work, Evans says, "Yeah, I am, which is why we're over here trying to figure out what we're going to do with it. I don't know yet. That's why we're studying our options."

Does Mitchem know Evans is unhappy about the progress, or lack of it?

"I don't know," Evans says. "But he knows the staff's unhappy with it."

Mitchem, whose company is called N2WIN!, says he can account for every penny. He says everything we've written about him has been "inaccurate." He says the project's been delayed not because of anything he's done, but because of "the process." He says he didn't get the $45,000 from the SDDC. That money, he says, "went for predevelopmental services." What that means, he doesn't say. "Call your sources," he says. "It's all public record." C'mon, just tell us what that means. "Call your sources."

OK. So, Charles McElrath, president and CEO of SDDC, what do you know about N2WIN!, Bama Pie and Motorsports Museum?

"That preceded my time here," McElrath says. "The person you need to talk to is Francisco [Carrillo] at economic development for the city."

Carrillo's out of town. Lee McKinney in economic development, it's your turn.

"That's before my time," McKinney says. "I've only been here 10 months. Maybe they gave a grant. Let me ask Francisco."

And so she did. And this is what McKinney came back with: In early 2000, HUD awarded the city a $50,000 CDBG grant that it was supposed to dole out to a start-up project in need of "professional services and technical assistance." The money was to be used within "designated census tracts to spur investment." HUD had SDDC manage the grant, since it's a revolving loan fund and SDDC knew how to deal with applicants who needed technical assistance. Mitchem applied for the money and got it, with the stipulation it be spent on architectural services. The way it worked was: The architect billed Mitchem, who turned around and gave the invoice to SDDC. When SDDC saw that it met the terms and conditions of the grant, it paid the architect $45,000 in CDBG grant money.

So that's $45,000 accounted for. That money went to the architect. Which leaves $319,000.

Well, according to a city document from September 30, 2005, concerning CDBG money, N2WIN! filed for an extension last fall. It says Mitchem has actually used $172,112 of his $290,000 block grant--money Mitchem says has gone toward "all parts of the construction process. Everything--the roof, the windows, the doors, the drywall work, the structure work, plumbing, electrical." The photos at Dallas Progress, which Michael Davis says were taken within the last few weeks, suggest that's a lot of money spent for very little work. McKinney says Carrillo told her "a lot of work's been done." But clearly, not enough to satisfy Evans and his staff.

This is the Bama Pie building as it looked in November. It hasn't changed much in eight months. Or six years.

When Mitchem says "the process" has been slowing his progress, what he means is HUD is very strict about how people spend federal grants. There are myriad rules and regulations that need to be followed, from who does the work to how much they're paid to how all the work being done is monitored and OK'd by the federal government. The recipient of CDBG money has to make sure, for instance, that subcontractors are paid what's called Davis-Bacon wages, which not only vary from state to state but also county to county.

"He has to make sure he's got somebody willing to work based on those requirements," Evans says. "He has to report who they are and show he's paying them in accordance with Davis-Bacon standards, and that's hard. That's hard. It's hard enough for folks who are used to doing federal work, let alone someone who's just trying to do his very first one. And this is arguably a tough project."

Evans says the city has "tried to walk [Mitchem] through every step" of the project, but that doing so has proven difficult; Mitchem, Evans says, has had difficulty complying with the federal regulations. Mitchem does not argue with this.

"I was totally green" six years ago, he says. "I don't go around buying historic properties. I am not a grant writer by trade. I don't do this for a living. I have to do this now. I have to see it through to fruition. But you couldn't have convinced me it would have taken this long and that dealing with a municipality as big as this city would have been like this. I never would have thought it, and no one warned me about it. To point the finger at this person and that person, you can't do it. It's a process. And it's like, damn, we weren't even awarded $364,000. If we had, you could do a lot with it, and you could do it instantly and see measurable improvements instantly. That's not what happened in this case. If it does in other cases, then I am shocked."

Mitchem also blames the holdup on the change in the way CDBG money was categorized: Initially, it was awarded for job creation, but in the spring of 2002, the federal government categorized it to be used for slum and blight elimination. But Evans says the city and feds were "trying to find the notch to get this in," and that it changed nothing concerning how the money was to be spent. When asked whether that alteration would have held up any work being done to the Bama Pie building, Evans says, "I don't believe it would have." Besides, the change was made and approved by the city council in April 2002. That's still more than four years ago.

"If I had deep pockets so I didn't have to go through this, it would be finished," Mitchem says. "Unfortunately I don't, and the process doesn't work like that, and I am learning like you are. If you are frustrated, multiply myfrustration. I have to go through what I go through, but to be insulted by the untrue comments you make...I don't care that you don't support us, but at least be accurate. You want to say me and Leo stole $360,000. But it wouldn't have gotten this far without the support from the [Community Development] Commission, the trust fund and the city council."

But that support appears to be drying up: Evans says the council's Economic Development & Housing Committee--which is chaired by Bill Blaydes and counts Chaney among its nine members--will take up the issue of the Bama Pie building next month. When asked when the city will determine whether it's given Mitchem enough time to finish the project, he says, "We're getting pretty close." It appears Mitchem will either have to deal with the process, or it will deal with him. After all, for six years he's been tying up $364,000 in money intended to go toward building new businesses, providing new jobs, fixing homes for the elderly, jump-starting blighted areas--anything but nothing, which is all Mitchem has to show despite what he insists are his best intentions and best efforts.

The city now will have to determine whether Mitchem can get the project done in a reasonable amount of time, and whether he will have the operating resources to keep his museum open once it's finished. In his CDBG extension last year, Mitchem said he expected to have the place open by March 31, 2006--four months ago and counting. Now he says, "I hope to have it open by the fall." It's become a waiting game, and the city's about through playing.

"We have limited resources, and we take risks when we invest in a project like this, as does the developer," Evans says. "You create a bond, because this is tough work. It's a venture in a difficult area, and you try to walk arm in arm, and we've done that, and it's been difficult. The project in and of itself was noble from the beginning and, I would argue, it's noble now in an area that could use a shot in the arm like this. A lot of folks would say, 'Enough is enough, let's cut our losses.' I am not ready to say that because I want to see what it would take to push him over to the hump to get him there. But if it's too much, I have to go back to the policy body and say, 'This is a tough one, and we may need to think about it a little more.' I am not ready to say that. But we have to do what has to be done." --Robert Wilonsky

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