By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
St. Paul City Council member Jerry Blakey, whose district includes Frogtown, has more extreme measures in mind: "At some point we'll probably have to go in with the sheriff's department. We don't want to, but it may come to that."
The Frogtown Action Alliance's reluctance to open its books may be due in part to a number of lawsuits filed against it and a growing stack of unpaid bills. The Internal Revenue Service has filed a series of liens against the Alliance because the group has failed to pay its payroll taxes. Two former employees have sued the Alliance and Shakir for sexual harassment. And one of the Alliance's chief benefactors, the McKnight Foundation, is withholding the final $110,000 payment of a three-year, $315,000 grant. Nancy Latimer, McKnight's senior program officer, says the foundation has a policy of not discussing its grantees, but allows that the Frogtown Action Alliance will not see any more money until the foundation has "sufficient information."
To address the Alliance's problems, and out of concern about losing a vital resource in the fight to revitalize Frogtown, Blakey is hoping to cobble together a community meeting later this month. "We've got to look at the obvious question of what's going on with the Frogtown Action Alliance first and foremost, and, given the status of it, where do we go from there," says the council member. "Because we need an organization like that in this neighborhood."
The product that was to become the linchpin of the Frogtown Puzzle Company has little in common with your average jigsaw puzzle. It consists of a set of intricately carved, interlocking, three-dimensional wooden pieces inscribed with a logo or slogan. The idea was to sell the items as marketing tools. If Target wanted to celebrate the opening of a new store, for instance, the company might want to hand out puzzles emblazoned with the address and its omnipresent bull's-eye symbol.
The concept was hatched in Curt Hansen's garage. It was there, in the early 1980s, that the entrepreneur first began carving the puzzles and hit upon the idea of selling them to a niche market. Because he didn't have the capital to launch a small manufacturing plant, Hansen says, he decided to pitch his invention to a nonprofit group that specialized in placing poor people in jobs. "I come from the slums," he explains. "I know how hard it is to get out of those places. I thought this was one of these things that would benefit me, but it would benefit other people more. My philosophy was, I don't care if they can spell résumé; if they can work with their hands, I've got something they can do."
In 1984 Hansen took the idea to Shem Shakir, whom he knew through a mutual friend. Shakir, who at the time was working at a nonprofit social-service organization in Ramsey County, enthusiastically embraced the project. Hansen also enlisted the help of a friend, Phil Swan, to bolster the marketing end of the operation.
As Shakir rose through the nonprofit ranks, eventually landing at Frogtown Action Alliance, the fledgling puzzle company went with him. Business plans were developed, investors were sought, and the project enjoyed a groundswell of support. After Mikhail Gorbachev visited Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1990, he returned to Russia with a butternut-wood prototype emblazoned with the words Working Together We Can Solve the Economic Puzzle Between Our Countries in English and Russian.
Then, as Hansen and Swan tell the story, the project began to slip out of their hands. Without their input, a new top executive, David Carruthers, was hired. In November 1998, Hansen and Swan were summoned to a meeting with Shakir. They were asked to sign a contract that would give them part-time positions as consultants, paying $17 an hour, but no percentage of their company's earnings. As they went over the contract in the ensuing days, the pair came to the conclusion that they were being taken advantage of. "My last comment to Shakir was, 'Yeah, you're taking my idea and giving me nothing for it,'" Hansen recounts. "I haven't talked to him since."
Hansen and Swan consulted an attorney about suing Shakir and the Frogtown Action Alliance. They estimate that they have invested somewhere between $15,000 and $30,000 in the project, as well as countless hours of their time. But they figure a lawsuit wouldn't be worth the trouble. "The first thing he said was, 'Well, do they have any money?'" Hansen recalls of his conversation with the lawyer. "And so far our answer has been 'no.' Paying a lawyer to get nothing seems like a self-defeating proposition."
Three months after Swan and Hansen left, the Star Tribune published an article that hailed the puzzle company as a potential economic panacea for Frogtown. The story, printed in the paper's Metro section and written by Mary Lynn Smith, noted that the business expected to employ a dozen people when it began operations and twice that many by the end of 1999. The workers would earn $8.50 to $10.00 an hour, plus benefits--a significant step up from the average McJob. Revenues for Frogtown Puzzle Company were projected to exceed $800,000 in its initial year. "This is going to be a signature piece for Frogtown," council member Blakey was quoted as saying. "It's a business, it's in the neighborhood, and that's beautiful....This is actually welfare to work."