Leo Barron Hicks is the administrator of the embattled South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund that's getting its much-needed overhaul approved by the city council tomorrow.

Trust the Trust Fund

Seven months after Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans suggested substantive changes were on the way for the beleaguered 19-year-old South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund, the city council is at last getting around to making them official. Tomorrow, before the council members begin their summer recess, they will vote to authorize changes in how the fund does its business. On May 9, the city staff proposed that the trust fund should changes its name to the South Dallas/Fair Park Neighborhood Development Fund. The reason, says this proposal on the city's Web site, is to "eliminate negative perceptions" about the fund that's doled out some $350,000 in small business loans since 1997 and has little to show for it except shuttered businesses and lawsuits piling up in the City Attorney's Office. The council's Economic Development and Housing Committee committee believes the fund needs to be redefined "as a community, social and economic development engine," which was its purpose all along, new name or no. Or perhaps the myriad trust fund loans that went into default meant the city could no longer use the word "trust" in good conscience.

The council committee, which is chaired by Bill Blaydes and vice-chaired by James Fantroy, also suggests changing the make-up of the trust fund's board. It wants eight of its members to have "direct connection to South Dallas community," which means they have to live, own a business, work or have some community involvement to qualify. The remaining seven positions will be at-large, and the board members there must "have qualification related to business, housing, non-profit management [and] community building." Also, at least two of the 15 board members "must have loan and grant underwriting experience." As far as Leo Barron Hicks, the trust fund's administrator, is concerned, these two recommendations are the most important; they will, he insists, remove the "taint of the old name" and give people in the neighborhood more control over the checkbook that's supposed to pay for improvements around Fair Park.

The committee has also recommended everything from changing the way grants and loans are disbursed (they're now to serve as "catalysts" for projects, rather than the entire funding) to the way the trust fund is managed both internally and by city staff. The trust fund will still dole out microgrants of $1,000 to $2,000 to businesses in good standing for "emergency situations," but the community-based non-profit organization grants, which can be for as much as $35,000, will go only to businesses that have tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service. And the trust fund will take a more active role in determining the viabilty of projects: No longer will it wait for applicants to come begging before it determines their viability and value to the area, but it will begin to "identify viable projects that have community impact for Trust Fund financial support." The resolution will also set the city's contribution from the general fund to the trust fund at $200,000, with the rest of its budget coming from the same places (ticket sales at the Smirnoff Music Center, flea markets and antique shows at Fair Park, private donations, loan repayments, etc.)

Leo Hicks also has other good news from the trust fund front: A new business has moved into the Exposition Park restaurant that belonged to Ronnie Crayton before he defaulted on the $50,000 loan he took from the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund almost three years ago. Hicks says Troy Gardner has taken over the space to operate Mobile Gourmet out of there (a business with which we have some familiarity; they deliver to the Dallas Observer building, and salads are pretty good). Gardner is not assuming Crayton's loan, but he will buy from Crayton his kitchen equipment; the proceeds will go toward repaying Crayton's debt, though he will still be responsible for the balance or face a lawsuit courtesy the city attorney. "He has completely revamped the inside of the restauant and will have his grand opening on Saturday," Hicks says. "That's a real positive development we're very pleased about." --Robert Wilonsky

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