By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
With the help of $60,000 from the William C. Norris Institute, a company that invests in inner-city businesses, and the $143,000 loan from St. Paul that's now the subject of an audit, equipment was purchased and renovations undertaken at 867 Pierce Butler Rte., a warehouse Frogtown Action Alliance owns. According to Carruthers, ten potential employees received training in woodworking, and five of them were eventually hired. A marketing director, graphic artist, and part-time office manager were also brought on board. In August of last year, the Frogtown Puzzle Company produced its first puzzles.
But by January the plan had begun to unravel. The company didn't have the money to pay Reiling Construction Company, which had renovated its headquarters. In addition, the puzzle company had never acquired a certificate of occupancy from the city. St. Paul inspectors demanded additional work before the building could be declared safe.
"The bottom line is this," says Carruthers. "The contractor wasn't paid, and the city, in January, came in and said, 'You only have a couple weeks to get it done.' It didn't get done and they shut it down. Everybody went home."
Carruthers initially believed that the Frogtown Action Alliance would be able to scrounge up the resources to get the company operational again, but that never happened. In April he quit. The warehouse building is now empty, its parking lot strewn with discarded tires, mattresses, and other refuse. Reiling Construction Company has placed mechanic's liens on the building and is suing Frogtown Action Alliance to recover $261,000 in unpaid bills.
"I left there with a real bad taste in my mouth," says Carruthers. "It's a time in my life I just wish hadn't happened." He is contemplating suing Frogtown Puzzle Company for what he says is $11,000 in unpaid wages, Carruthers adds. "If they were an operating entity, I'd go after it, certainly. But at this time they're not operating, so there's no money."
According to a press release issued by Frogtown Action Alliance on August 7, the puzzle company is not dead yet. The nonprofit group says it hopes to sell or lease the warehouse, then use the money to pay its debt to Reiling. The release also asserts that a new business plan has been formulated and that the company is hoping to secure a loan from U.S. Bank. Attorney Thomas Ward, who is representing the Alliance in the Reiling lawsuit, says the organization is working with the construction company to resolve the dispute.
Still, Jerry Blakey, who hailed the project just a year and a half ago, now looks on it as a squandered opportunity for the neighborhood. "They haven't done what they said they were going to do," the council member says ruefully of the Frogtown Action Alliance. "I was quite discouraged by that news."
A North Carolina native, Shem Shakir is a physically imposing man who carries himself with an air of imperviousness not often associated with the altruistic environs of the nonprofit world. He stands more than six feet tall, weighs more than 200 pounds, and practices tae kwon do. He drives both a Ford Expedition sport utility vehicle and a Mercedes Benz, and is partial to immaculately tailored suits. "When Shem comes to a function that requires casual dress, he wears jeans that have been ironed with a crease in them," says one person who has worked with Shakir in the Dale Street building.
According to an undated résumé on file at St. Paul City Hall, Shakir has a bachelor's degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and did graduate work in business administration at Metro State University in St. Paul. Since 1978 Shakir has held a succession of jobs at area nonprofit organizations, working his way up from chief field representative for the St. Paul Urban League to his present post. He has been married to his second wife for more than 25 years and is the father of six grown children.
These personal tidbits have been culled from government and court records, and from people who know Shakir, because he isn't talking. Despite seven telephone calls, a faxed request for an interview, and an in-person visit to his offices, Shakir would not answer City Pages' questions about his biography or his embattled organization. Instead he faxed City Pages a two-page press release laying out steps that the Frogtown Action Alliance is taking to rectify its economic situation and stating that "significant progress" has already been made.
One explanation for Shakir's aversion to the media may be a lawsuit brought by Hussanatu Webber, a former office manager at the Frogtown Action Alliance.
In fall 1994, Webber claims in documents filed with Ramsey County District Court, she turned to Shakir in the midst of a personal crisis. At the time the 37-year-old mother of one had been working at the Alliance for about six months. Her duties, which earned her a salary of $26,000 a year, included taking the minutes at board meetings, keeping track of Shakir's schedule, and answering the phone.
Webber was having marital problems with her husband James. Because Shakir was an old friend of her husband (a relationship that had helped land her the job), Webber thought her boss might be able to help. Sitting at a conference table in the Alliance's offices one afternoon with Shakir, Webber unburdened herself.