4

Skating along

This Is How We Do It" blares on the sound system, its driving rhythm pumping up the already fevered crowd. Preteens in their Tommy Hilfiger uniforms and fluorescent-colored skates sail across the polished maple floor, shrieking as they pick up speed, giggling as they watch their parents fall. Older siblings are tethered to their baby brothers and sisters and help them get adjusted to their wheels. A knot of girlfriends twirl around the rink, linked arm in arm, their braids flung out behind them like kite tails.

Round and round they go, a blur of prepubescent energy and glee.

It's almost dusk on a Saturday in late November, and Southern Skates is packed. Barely a month old and without a lick of advertising, the skating rink in South Oak Cliff is doing turn-away business. The last two Saturday nights, in fact, management had to lock the doors after it reached a maximum crowd of 500 people. The rink has provided a much needed attraction for families and youths in a part of town much more accustomed to watching things being torn down than seeing them built up.

Don Canyon Jr., a field service representative for the city water department, couldn't wait for it to be finished. He watched it being built on his way to work at City Hall each day. "My wife and I said we'd be glad when they finally finished it up so it would give kids something to enjoy," says Canyon as he holds a Rugrats cake for his 8-year-old son, who has invited two dozen of his friends to the rink to celebrate his birthday. "It's bringing something back to the community so we don't have to go to the suburbs."

Southern Skates was a long time coming -- longer than people like Don Canyon even know. In fact, the whole idea was launched before Canyon's son was even born. Almost a decade ago, community activist Fahim Minkah promised to build something positive for children on the exact spot where only drugs and decay once dwelt. And despite broken promises and bureaucratic bungling, Minkah finally has made good on that promise ("A dream deferred," May 29, 1997).

In the early 1990s, Minkah watched as crack cocaine and violence destroyed one inner city neighborhood after another. When he could not get help from police, he formed a group called African American Men Against Narcotics, which patrolled the drug-infested apartment complexes off Interstate 45 and Loop 12. A former high school and college track star and lifelong roller skater, Minkah believed the best deterrent to drugs and despair was family-centered, wholesome recreational activities, which were hard to find in his part of town. He decided to build a roller rink on a two-acre, weed-choked site on East Ledbetter, where dopers used to stash stolen loot.

The first hurdle was getting the land, which was owned by a savings and loan. Minkah and the United Front, a nonprofit anti-drug and economic development organization he founded, convinced the bank -- 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.

Getting the financing for the $1.5 million rink proved to be the bigger hurdle. In the mid-1990s, the Southern Dallas Development Corp., a nonprofit corporation dedicated to developing businesses in neglected areas of town, initially championed Minkah's project. After spending $100,000 on predevelopment work -- including a marketing survey that showed a need and interest in the rink -- the SDDC promised to loan Minkah $500,000 provided he could secure the rest of the funds. Minkah won a $400,000 commitment from Texas Chase Bank and $500,000 from a federal Housing and Urban Development loan program funneled through the Dallas Neighborhood Renaissance project.

Then, in early 1997, two years after backing the project, the SDDC backed out. The agency's loan committee voted to deny the loan, citing among other things insufficient cash flow and inexperienced management. A shrewd and tenacious tactician, Minkah discovered that the SDDC was planning to ask the city's Community Development Commission if the corporation could transfer the money it had originally promised the roller rink to another loan program. Minkah convinced the commission members to take the money back from the SDDC and loan it directly to him. As Minkah worked around the clock to salvage his project, the SDDC said it would consider lending him the money if he turned the project into a profit-making business, of which the SDDC would be one-third owner.

Minkah was not interested in partnering with the SDDC. Instead, he filed suit against the corporation for breach of contract.

It would take Minkah almost two more years to get the city to stop throwing roadblocks in his way. For instance, city staff asked for an updated business plan, then took months before cutting a check to pay for it. When the business plan was finally complete, the city staff thought the financial projections looked too good to be true. City staff told Minkah they didn't think the neighborhood income level was high enough to support the rink, that people there didn't spend much money on kids.

"I told them I thought that was an insult," Minkah told the Observer in June 1998.

Looking out over the crowded rink, at the lines snaking in front of the snack bar, at the half-dozen tables reserved for birthday parties that are all full, Minkah is pleased to prove everyone wrong. "They said it wouldn't cash flow," he says with a satisfied grin. "It's the first month, and we're already covering all our costs." He has dropped the suit against the SDDC.

Minkah hired an experienced skating-rink manager from Houston to help get the operation up and running, in addition to hiring 18 neighborhood youths to work there. Manager Burrous Johnson, who has been in the inner-city skating rink business since 1974, thinks the rink's location and Minkah's dedication will guarantee success.

"It takes a lot of gall to put up something for kids," Johnson says. "They're profitable businesses, but you have to have the right attitude and operation. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of love."

To ensure safety, Minkah and Johnson hired a floor guard who uses a portable metal detector on each customer. A strict dress code is enforced -- no halters and no underpants-baring baggy pants. Lascivious dancing is strictly forbidden. Skaters breaking rules are given a warning, and if they persist, they are photographed and escorted out. Their picture remains at the ticket office so they can't sneak back in.

"If you're in here, you have to have your skates on and laced," Minkah says. "Troublemakers don't make trouble on skates."

Minkah's attention to detail is not lost on patrons and visitors. Two police officers stopped by on that recent Saturday afternoon to check the place out. The officers, who did not want to be named, said they were originally nervous about the rink opening, fearing it would attract trouble. They were pleasantly surprised.

"These people are on the job," says an officer by the first name of Freddy. "Kids are coming here strictly to have fun. They're getting high on skating. They're doing a good job of keeping the negative out. We haven't had a rink around here in more than 10 years. I think it's going to help uplift Ledbetter. This makes the police officers work harder. We don't want to see them close down."

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