At a recent East African Business Forum in a ballroom in south Minneapolis, a man named Jibril Afyare stood to say the city must do something to protect Somali-American businesswomen from landlords who treat them unfairly.
“They are abused and taken advantage of,” Afyare said. “We need to step in and rescue these poor, poor, poor women.”
Minneapolis Council Member Abdi Warsame, who was at the June forum along with Mayor Jacob Frey, had proposed a solution to those grievances during his 2017 re-election campaign: creating a new mall for East African business owners that could compete with the two dominant business centers, Karmel Square and the 24 Mall.
There’s been little movement on the mall since then. When Warsame took the microphone at the forum in late June, he didn’t mention it. Instead, he focused on the general need for Somali businesspeople to own their own real estate.
“We want to move away from the lack of ownership,” Warsame said. “You get a certain comfort and a certain confidence when you own your own space.”
Warsame’s call for a new mall dominated his successful re-election campaign last year and earned him the vigorous opposition of Basim Sabri, owner of Karmel Square, a warren of stalls and storefronts in an old machine shop and a second, four-story building full of clothing shops, hair salons, henna shops, restaurants and even a mosque.
While Sabri has no trouble renting stalls in his property, Warsame and others say he charges high rents for substandard space occupied mostly by Somali-American businesswomen.
At Warsame’s urging, the city identified a city-owned vacant 1.5 acre lot at 2600 Minnehaha Av. as a potential spot for a new mall, and in August the City Council asked city staff to study the feasibility of a mall there.
Since then, nothing has been announced.
The staff member in charge of the feasibility study, senior project coordinator Mark Garner, did not respond to requests for comment through a city spokeswoman.
There has been no public update on the study since the council asked for it more than 10 months ago.
Warsame said after the East African Business Forum that he didn’t want to distract from the event by bringing up the mall or Sabri.
“We wanted to focus on the point of the forum, which was connecting entrepreneurs to the city,” Warsame said. “We will have an event like that for the mall once we figure everything out.”
Sabri, who has long invited the city to build a mall, said he treats his tenants well and that managing a mall is more difficult than people realize.
“I try as much as I can to treat people in general with fairness — in particular my tenants,” Sabri said. “I don’t think anybody has given the Somali community and the immigrant community the opportunities I have given. If you find it, you call me.”
He said all of his tenants have leases, the majority of them month to month.
Sabri said Warsame’s promise to build a mall was a “campaign slogan,” and that it’s “easy to talk the talk, but it’s not easy to walk the walk.”
“It’s easy to open a mall tomorrow, but can you keep it running?” Sabri said. “You have no idea how many sinks get clogged a day, how many faucets get broken, how many light fixtures go out.”
Sabri, who is 60, also said he is working with his lawyer on a way to transfer ownership of Karmel Square to the tenants.
The site the city is eyeing for a “public market” is the last vacant land in the Seward Place Industrial Business Park. The city’s department of Community Planning and Economic Development put out a request for proposals in February 2014 looking for light industrial development, but so far nothing has worked out.
“We’re still in the phase where we are looking at options, and everybody’s committed to doing it,” Warsame said. “The idea is for it to operate like a condo association, where all the stores are owners.”
He said he hopes the feasibility study will be complete in a couple of months.