NWI Empowerment Zone

Empowerment Zone 'success' stories hard to define

2011-04-25T00:00:00Z 2011-04-26T12:31:40Z Empowerment Zone 'success' stories hard to defineBy Christine Kraly christine.kraly@nwi.com, (219) 852-3030 nwitimes.com

Edward Garza took particular pride in paying his final bill to the Gary-East Chicago-Hammond Empowerment Zone.

The zone had shown kindness and patience to him and his third-generation East Chicago business when banks had not, he said.

"I hand-delivered the last payment," Garza boasted. "I wanted to thank them."

Zone officials count Garza's Mexican food manufacturer, El Popular, as one of their "success" stories –- a label not given to many other businesses that sought aid.

El Popular is among 29 projects given a total of $9.9 million in low-interest loans between 2001 and 2010.

At least 13 other businesses or owners to which the zone lent money eventually filed for bankruptcy, a Times probe revealed.

El Popular has been making chorizo in East Chicago since 1927. In 2002, Garza's father handed him the reins of the company, which faced financial struggles. About two years later, Garza borrowed $35,000 from the zone to keep the company afloat.

"It was really ailing," Garza said of the business. "I had a vision. I was getting the ball rolling. That loan helped the ball roll a little faster."

His longtime family business prospered following the loan. Others have been less lucky.

Struggling for Success

More local Empowerment Zone loan recipients have filed for bankruptcy than have been kept afloat, a Times probe revealed.

Seventeen of the 29 businesses or programs the zone provided with low-interest loans have closed. Two recipients still considered "alive" are Gary's Dalton Arms building and Fresh County Market, ventures with checkered pasts.

Zone Executive Director Scott Upshaw admitted the program's results have been mixed at best.

Some projects "have not turned out to be what we thought," he conceded, noting the results of some have been "excruciatingly painful."

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesman Brian Sullivan was noncommittal in deeming the zone a success. He called it a "sticky wicket" trying to gauge if this or other zones have accomplished their revitalization goals.

In 1994, the federal government began designating certain economically depressed communities as zones, doling out millions in grants and tax benefits to stimulate development. Northwest Indiana's zone was announced in 1999 and was awarded $25.6 million until the federal program closed at the end of 2009.

Comparing jobs or businesses created among several zones "may not even be fair," Sullivan said.

A look at the often-troubled lives of region projects that took nearly $10 million in federal money shows varied programs with equally diverse outcomes.

The grocery store

County Market, at 25th Avenue and Grant Street, opened in 2005, letting Gary residents do what they had not in years – shop at a large grocery store in their city.

The problem was, not enough showed up to shop.

And when the store shuttered four months after opening, the rent due to developer-owners of the County Market Plaza dried up, which caused bonds that financed the plaza to default, according to developer Patrick Lee.

Gary residents and developers Lee and Thomas Collins had formed the corporation Grant 80-94 LLC to build the plaza and its retail lots. The zone helped finance the project with two bonds and a $2 million loan.

According to Lee, Grant 80-94 has been paying back investors to get the bonds out of default and hopes to start paying back the zone once all other obligations have been fulfilled.

Grant 80-94 has not made a loan payment to the zone since April 2007.

In 2009, longtime Gary grocer Mark Musleh reopened the store as Fresh County Market.

"We're hanging in there," Musleh said of the store's traffic. "Every month is better than the month before. It takes time to change how people shop."

The historic building

The seventh floor of Gary's Dalton Arms, tinged with the smell of fresh wood from new window panes, offers a view of the U.S. Steel mill.

After years of neglect, the historical building just east of Broadway on Fifth Avenue is undergoing a massive transformation into a 57-unit apartment building.

In June 2008, Dalton developer Shawn Loyden of Florida-based Gary Progress LLC, took a $2.5 million zone loan to breathe new life into the building.

Larry Swank, president of the Sterling Group, a Mishawaka-based firm contracted to rehab the building, said officials hope to complete the renovation by August or September.

Advanced as the building's repairs are, they are a long time coming after dormant years plagued by past and pending legal turmoil.

In March 2009, a Chicago investor sued Loyden in federal court, saying Loyden owed nearly $1 million for failing to secure low-income housing tax credits the investor wanted. The case was dismissed in February 2010.

With all the construction delays, the FBI reportedly had been investigating how Loyden had spent the zone's $2.5 million.

"To this date, I have no idea" what happened with the funds, Upshaw said.

Records show Loyden is up to date in making interest-only payments on his zone loan, paying $17,708 in February.

The preaching glass man

The world of Northwest Indiana's Empowerment Zone is small. A firm contracted to do the first phase of Dalton demolition also received a zone loan.

Williams Architectural Glass & Glazing owner Christopher Thorpe said he used his $35,000 loan in 2005 to pay 20 Williams workers on the Dalton job.

When Thorpe talks business, he invokes scripture. Also a preacher, he owns New Beginnings Outreach Ministry, a modest church adjacent to the small Williams office in Gary.

Thorpe said he spent 20 years in the military before heading into construction and the pulpit, preaching how business skills can help get disadvantaged men off hard streets like Gary's.

The zone's loan helped him do just that, as did the classes helping train fledgling business owners, he said.

Though Thorpe quickly paid off his zone loan, his business later suffered.

After a disagreement regarding a $150,000 payment for other contracting work, Thorpe said, Williams closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy in November.

"That just took me under," Thorpe said.

He still sees labor skills as a way out for troubled men. He's focused on making his community development corporation, Indy Enterprise Group, a spiritually influenced business-training program.

The dance troupe

Brightly clad dancers sashayed across the Gary West Side High School theater stage for hundreds of region students in February.

"The Spirit of the Baobab Tree" has "something that everyone at one time can relate to," instructor Dionne Champion told the students.

The show is one of two key performances every year by DancExcel, a Gary studio that provides music and dance lessons to as many as 100 students spanning all ages.

The studio opened in 2004 at 2345 Grant St., where co-founder Champion used to take dance lessons as a child.

Champion, a Gary native, and friend Sherice Grant met as charter school teachers in Boston and decided to bring to Gary their passion for teaching the arts to at-risk students.

"We break our backs," Champion said, but "they still need it so badly."

Borrowing about $156,000 from the zone allowed the duo to start making mortgage payments on the studio, they said.

Zone records show they refinanced their loan and are current in the roughly $80,000 they still owe.

The strip mall

The retail strip at 1982 Grant St. in Gary is home to an eclectic array of services, from a salon to a diaper store.

The units were built in 2002 by JJF Holding LLC, with the help of $100,000 in zone loans.

JJF owner Jerla Freeman, an accountant with a tax-services shop in the strip, said she built the space because she was tired of paying rent in other storefronts.

The mall was lauded in national zone literature for creating 22 local jobs. Freeman said she enjoyed getting reports from the zone on how many Gary residents had been helped by her business.

Although Freeman paid off her 2001 loan to the zone, county records show the strip owes at least $14,531 in past-due property taxes.

The dugout dining

Listed as being located in the Grant strip mall is E&J Management Group, a company also started by Freeman and Gary resident Earmon Hill.

Some time around 2007, E&J took over ownership of the Bennigan's restaurant connected to The Steel Yard, Gary's minor league baseball stadium. Records show E&J borrowed $250,000 from the zone in October 2006.

The Irish-themed eatery that opened its doors to great hope and fanfare suffered through a tough economy and bouts of crime. The national chain filed for bankruptcy in 2008, which spelled disaster for hundreds of franchisees, including the Gary location.

E&J last made a payment on its zone loan in June 2009. In October 2009, Southshore Baseball LLC, then owner of the RailCats, sued E&J in Lake County civil court.

E&J filed for bankruptcy in Hammond federal court in January, seemingly halting the lawsuit and the company's plans to repay the zone for the foreseeable future.

Angela Kelver, Southshore's South Bend-based lawyer, said she could not comment on the bankruptcy. She declined to discuss the lawsuit in detail, except to say it addresses E&J's failure to pay on its lease with Southshore.

The Times was unable to reach multiple officials involved with E&J, including Hill and the company's lawyer, Greg Bouwe. 

Freeman answered questions about the loans for her retail complex but did not return subsequent calls seeking information about E&J.

The mechanic

Edward Trevino stood outside his cavernous auto body shop along East Chicago's 150th Street, waving at a passing car.

People know and trust his work, he said, "including this guy," pointing to a smiling man driving an old pickup. Trevino calls him "the pizza guy."

Trevino – who has operated shops in East Chicago and Hammond for 36 years – is among the owners who went to the zone to support established businesses.

He is paying off a $201,000 loan he received in December 2006 to expand his inventory and buy a new tow truck.

"It's been a lot of hard work, but I really like what I do," Trevino said.

The raking solution

In August 2007, a pregnant Sabrina Oliver was struggling to rake leaves outside her Gary home.

"I thought, 'There's got to be a better way. I don't want to do this again,'" Oliver said.

The idea for the Rake B' Gone was born.

With the zone's help in forming a business plan, Oliver created a mat of biodegradable compost to be rolled out on a lawn before leaves fall. Once covered by leaves, it can be rolled up and tossed away, leaving no waste, she said.

Under a company she named Summore's Enterprises, Oliver borrowed $5,000 from the zone in May 2009 to produce a commercial.

Oliver since has moved to Georgia but said, per zone requirements, she plans to manufacture the mats in Gary this spring.

"I would like to bring jobs there," she said.

Zone records show Oliver owes $3,425 on her loan, and her account has been sent to collections.

The beleaguered steel partner

When the nation's steel business slumped in recent years, so did many industry partners, including Gary's Calumet Distribution Group.

The company distributed industrial supplies to steel companies, mainly in Gary, Baltimore and Cleveland, one-time president Terence Bonich said.

In August 2001, the company took a $500,000 loan from the zone, which was meant to build an e-commerce website selling tools and supplies.

The company flourished, at one point earning $30 million a year. Then, "overnight, the whole landscape changed," Bonich said.

Several steel companies, about 80 percent of Calumet's customers, filed for bankruptcy, which "put our business in kind of a tough spot. Eventually, we just didn't have the capital," he said.

Calumet filed for bankruptcy in February 2004, and the zone sued Bonich and the company in Lake County court four months later. The business closed, and its assets were sold in 2006.

"(The business) failed because almost the entire customer base closed," Bonich said.

Company officials reached a settlement with the zone in September 2006 to pay back $50,000, or 10 percent of the original loan.

"They've been very cooperative," Bonich said. "They've worked with us to work things out."

The food supplier

Ross Food, Paper and Janitorial Supply had been the only minority-owned supplier of food paper goods in Indiana, owner Ronald Ross said.

In 2007 and 2008, Ross borrowed a combined $26,558 from the zone.

When his wife died several years ago, Ross said, his business suffered. But Empowerment Zone Director Upshaw "helped me quite a bit with that," Ross said.

Though he still owes $24,791, Lake County records show the zone has not sued Ross for failing to pay back his loans.

Federal court records show Ross and his business have filed for bankruptcy multiple times, the latest in November. That case was dismissed after Ross failed to make scheduled appointments and payments in his case.

In February, Ross told The Times he had talked to Upshaw about moving his business into the zone's incubator building. After that interview, Ross did not return calls seeking more information about his company's future.

The media man

In 2005, region TV talk show host Garrard McClendon borrowed nearly $16,000 from the zone to host focus groups for his CLTV show and to help publish a children's book called "Suit Shoes."

The Hammond native commended the zone for being less corporate and more compassionate, helping fledgling companies get on their feet.

"That's huge for a small business that at times is at a hand-to-mouth existence," McClendon said. "The Empowerment Zone steps in there and fills that niche."

McClendon, who is repaying his loan, acknowledged he had struggled to keep payments current. Until last month, he had not made a payment on his $8,844 balance since October.

CLTV canceled McClendon's show "Garrard McClendon Live" in September.

"My business has had its challenges, but we're turning the corner now," he said. He now hosts a show on Chicago public television station WYCC called "Off 63rd."

Zone records show McClendon made a payment of $200 in March, after he was contacted by The Times.

The sewing solution

In October 2004, the zone lent Gary-based Rev. Bennie Simmons $35,000 for a project called A Stitch In Tie'm.

According to the website for Youth Family Community Renewal, a nonprofit group Simmons founded, the group had created an embroidery shop to train adults in sewing skills. However, the site said, a machine was damaged in 2006 "and has not worked properly since."

Simmons was reluctant to talk when The Times contacted him in February to learn more about the program.

"It was a long time ago, so I can't really say much about it," Simmons said. "It's a good program, that's all I can say. Goodbye."

The zone won a $35,000 civil collections judgment in Lake County against Simmons in October 2007. Court records show the case remains open.

It's not the only time Simmons has resisted making public payments, according to county records. Though it had not filed the proper paperwork, Youth Family had fought paying property taxes to Lake County in recent years, at one point owing at least $798,040 on its Jackson Street building.

The medical lab

Patricia Delldean Brown said her 30 years in the medical profession spurred her to desire to provide health care to needy women.

So in 2005, Brown opened the Northlake International Medical Laboratory at 2200 Grant St., a lab offering women Pap smears. She said she wanted to provide some medical help "in a community that's been so inflicted with cancer."

Paired with some of her personal funds, $70,000 from the zone went toward medical equipment.

"It ran way over the amount we allocated," she said of lab costs.

The lab was shuttered after three years. Though she had been eyeing retirement, Brown went back to work as a psychologist.

Brown filed for bankruptcy in January 2009, listing $35,000 owed to the zone. Zone records show she actually owes $36,539, including interest.

She said she doesn't expect she'll be able to repay the loan.

"I really appreciate what they did," she said of the zone's help. "It would have been good, had (there) been more time. If we would've had more monetary support, it would've happened."

The ice cream parlor

In May 2008, TV Judge Glenda Hatchett made a campaign swing through Gary, stumping alongside now-first lady Michelle Obama.

Among Hatchett's scheduled stops was Dolly's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, at 18th and Grant streets.

Opened in 2000, the eatery borrowed nearly $15,000 from the zone in 2002 to install a sign and expand the parking lot, owner Christian Terrell said.

But Terrell said a lack of cash and customer base killed the business.

"We didn't get enough foot traffic in," he said.

The parlor closed in 2007. Lake County court records show the zone sued Terrell in January 2008 for missed payments and won a default judgment that May.

Terrell declared bankruptcy a month later. He said because the zone did not file a claim on his bankruptcy, he does not envision paying back the $13,175 the zone says he owes.

"They were saying they had a lien on it," Terrell said. "I don't know what came about it.

"I just walked away from it."

The seafood joint

Along Judge Hatchett's same scheduled 2008 campaign route was Gary's Davis Seafood. Later that same year, the owners of the 15th Street banquet hall that served as a polling site filed the first of three bankruptcies.

In their latest bankruptcy filing from April 2010, Henry and Earline Davis list the zone as a creditor on a $90,000 loan, though zone records show interest that raises the balance to $91,537.

The Davises did not respond to multiple Times' requests for comment.

An employee for a Hammond lawyer who represented the Davises in the 2008 bankruptcy said the couple did not want to be interviewed by The Times.

In February, outside of the Davises' foreclosed, glass-strewn house on Gary's Lincoln Avenue, a man identifying himself as their son said the family was in the process of trying to get back the seafood shop.

The boutique

Running Ms. Elle's boutique, with its colorful clothes and locally crafted jewelry, is a "faith walk every day" in a bad economy, owner Lorna Moore said.

After 25 years in corporate retail management, Moore loved fashion – and people – and always wanted to open her own store.

When the East Chicago resident wanted to convert a former Highland bookstore into her shop, the zone recommended modestly priced construction companies and answered her questions about being a first-time business owner.

She opened Ms. Elle's in June 2008, something Moore said she never could have done without the zone.

"You need someone to believe in you," she said. "I feel like they want you to succeed. They're believers. They're dream-makers."

And for helping her with that dream, she currently is repaying two loans totaling $31,000. Zone records show she has paid off a little more than $2,100.

She thrives mostly on referrals, so determining her ability to stay open and pay off the loan is a day-to-day assessment, she said.

"I'm not going to get rich," Moore said. But "my customers want me to survive."

The buffet

The zone never envisioned itself a restaurateur. But when your goal is to revitalize a city, and when one of its only large, downtown eateries is going under, you become one.

The zone took over the Dustie's Buffet across from The Steel Yard in November 2009, after the business failed to make money or pay its lease.

Upshaw said the zone wanted to create a restaurant with "a genre of food we thought would work well. It didn't work."

Upshaw said as the restaurant struggled to make monthly lease payments, the zone allowed owners to remain in the Fifth Avenue site for a year and a half after the business could have been evicted.

The zone took the matter to court and has been running the operation – now called the Steel City Buffet & Grill – for a little more than a year.

Records detailed at the zone board's January meeting showed – accounting for revenue and expenses – it actually cost the zone nearly $49,000 to operate the grill in 2010.

"With a little more due diligence, we probably would have done some things a little different," Upshaw said. "I don't think anybody on the board regrets the restaurant."

He said the zone would consider selling the restaurant under the right circumstances.

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