By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The streets of Frogtown are tarred with contradictions. Along University Avenue, between Lexington Avenue and I-35E, humble handpainted business signs advertise the flourishing dreams that often accompany an economic boom. At Grotto Street the Trung Nam French Bakery has sprouted from the empty shell of a former Popeye's fast-food franchise. Across the way a grocery store touts its meat department in Spanish: "Carnicería! Fresco Siempre!" Farther along the avenue the Xieng Khouang Oriental Market and Cheng Heng Cambodian restaurant mix with less exotic neighborhood institutions such as Lendway's Lounge, a blue-collar watering hole.
Dale Street, Frogtown's main thoroughfare, intersects with University Avenue just west of downtown St. Paul. Four blocks north on Dale, at Thomas Avenue, stands the Speedy Market, a corner convenience store like any other. On nearby street corners swarm the detritus of the drug trade: scrawny kids riding bicycles and pledging allegiance to the Gangsta Crips or the Shotgun Disciples; slow-cruising cars circling the perimeter blocks, stopping now and then to broker a street deal; beat cops frisking teens they know on a first-name basis.
At the intersection of Dale and Van Buren, not even a quarter-mile from the Speedy Market, there is a former candle factory. Ten years ago arson would have been the likely fate of this 87-year-old concrete structure. But now the rehabbed factory, complete with stucco siding and a brand-new roof, is the headquarters of the Frogtown Action Alliance, a nonprofit created in 1992 that helped jump-start a kind of tenuous renaissance in St. Paul's most racially diverse and potentially vibrant neighborhood.
Nearly 15,000 people live in Frogtown, which is bounded roughly by University Avenue to the south, the Burlington Northern railroad tracks to the north, Western Avenue to the east, and Victoria Avenue to the west. More than a quarter of these residents are Asian. Another 18 percent identified themselves as black in the 1990 census; the bulk of the remaining respondents were white. According to those census figures, the median household income is just $16,645; more than a third of Frogtown's populace is living below the poverty level. A study of 1998-99 data by the Urban Coalition, a nonprofit public policy and research organization, found that 84 percent of the students who live within the area served by the Thomas-Dale District Seven Planning Council, which includes Frogtown, were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches--compared with 62 percent citywide. Nineteen percent of the households in District Seven receive welfare, the highest number in the city, which has a seven percent average.
Shem Shakir, the founding president and chief executive officer of the Frogtown Action Alliance, spent the better part of the 1990s trying to help his neighbors share in the country's economic renaissance. And in many respects, he has succeeded. "I think that they've done a lot to make the changes in Frogtown that we've seen to date," says David Liset, interim executive director of University United, a local nonprofit development organization. "They've been some of the people to hold [other organizations] accountable and to make sure they do their part in order for us to move ahead."
In conjunction with area banks, the Alliance created the Frogtown Large Loan Fund in 1999. From a pool of $1.5 million, the fund makes loans of up to $100,000 to local businesses that otherwise would not have access to credit or be able to afford the exorbitant interest rates. Their Dale Street Façade Grant Program has been used to refurbish area businesses such as Junior's Bar and Grill and the Dale Street Greenhouse. In partnership with the Neighborhood Development Center, the Alliance transformed two vacant buildings at the intersection of University and Dale into small-business incubators, providing office space for 18 minority-owned companies. And thanks in large part to the savvy and tenacity of the 58-year-old Shakir, grants have poured into Frogtown from virtually every major private funder in the Twin Cities, including the Star Tribune Foundation and the Bush Foundation, not to mention the City of St. Paul itself, which has given the Alliance multiple grants and loans over the years. By 1998, when the group filed its most recent tax return, the Frogtown Action Alliance had annual revenues of almost $800,000.
For much of this year, though, the Frogtown Action Alliance has been under siege, more preoccupied with its own survival than that of its clients. In July St. Paul officials began an audit of funds awarded to the Alliance and to the Frogtown Puzzle Company, a now-defunct, for-profit spin-off created a year ago to bring jobs to the neighborhood. At issue are government-subsidized loans of $143,000 and $100,000, and a state grant of $275,000. But so far, despite repeated requests and two in-person visits by the auditor, Shakir has not granted access to the organization's financial records. Last month, in frustration, the St. Paul City Attorney's Office issued notices of default on the loans and the grant. The Alliance has 30 days to respond.
"I have not sat down with the city attorney and said, 'Okay, what is our next step?'" says Tom Harren, a manager in St. Paul's Department of Planning and Economic Development. "We're assuming that [Shakir]'s going to comply with us. If he doesn't, we'll have to decide what our remedies are."