An event center and small-business incubator aimed at serving African entrepreneurs is poised to open this fall in Bloomington despite the indictment of its CEO in the Feeding Our Future fraud case in September, officials said.

Afrique, a cultural center that will also include a restaurant, retail shops, offices and a children's play area, will be just across Hwy. 77 from the Mall of America. Community members are excited about the project and there's nothing quite like it in the Twin Cities, said Omar Jamal, a Somali activist and consultant on the project.

Several weeks after indictments linked Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff — Afrique's CEO — to the Feeding Our Future fraud case, work appears to be ongoing on the Bloomington project. Earlier this week, a new sign, covered in plastic, hung over the entrance.

City officials said construction continues at the Afrique site and it is expected to open in the coming months. The city isn't involved in reviewing the financials of such projects and the Feeding Our Future case is outside their authority, officials added.

According to the indictment filed Sept. 13, Shariff and several co-conspirators used Afrique Hospitality Group as a shell company to fraudulently obtain federal Child Nutrition Program funds.

Feeding Our Future was a Minnesota nonprofit that supposedly helped community partners participate in the nutrition program. Along with seven other people, Shariff was indicted as part of the Empire group, which is allegedly responsible for $40 million in fraud.

Overall, prosecutors have charged 49 people in the $250 million fraud case.

Shariff participated in the fraudulent scheme, the indictment said, by submitting phony meal count sheets, invoices and rosters stating that he and others were serving food to thousands of children a day at a Bloomington site.

The indictment goes on to accuse Shariff of using proceeds from the fraud to build Afrique.

Andrew Mohring, Shariff's attorney in the criminal case, also said Afrique is on track to open this fall. Construction is complete and the project is in the inspection and permitting phase with the city, he said.

Shariff has entered a not-guilty plea, Mohring said.

Jamal recalled a similar idea for a Somali mall that was slated for the Cedar-Riverside area several years ago but never materialized. It would have been smaller than Afrique, he said.

"The idea of creating something like this ... has always been in the minds of the people," he said.

More than $2 million has been raised by investors to get the center off the ground, he said, and it aims to serve both members of the African diaspora and the broader population.

The 28,000-square-foot center, at 1701 American Blvd. E. in an office warehouse space, makes sense because members of the Somali community are gradually moving out of the inner cities and into the suburbs, particularly suburbs like Eden Prairie, Edina and Bloomington, Jamal said.

"It will be a big step forward for the community," he said, adding that the city has been very helpful in making it happen.

Glen Markegard, Bloomington's planning manager, said Afrique received a conditional-use permit from the city on Jan. 24. It has since been issued multiple permits for electrical and plumbing, he said.

The city created "cultural center" as a new land-use classification in 2021 in anticipation of Afrique, Markegard said, and the center meets several city goals.

The city wants to encourage workforce development, he said, which the center will do. Bloomington is also "very interested in being a welcoming community" to immigrant and multicultural groups, he said, which fits with Afrique's mission.

Markegard said that while there's nothing like Afrique in the city, Bloomington is "starting to see more uses that approach this" as more sites combine a religious use with one that supports the community by providing job-training programs, food shelves, housing assistance or other needs.

The office warehouse building has several existing tenants, including Arrow Lift, a company that sells stair lifts and home elevators, and Universal Sports Auction, a sports memorabilia shop, concentrated in a separate area. They are not connected to the Afrique space.

Linda Pavlick, an administrative specialist for Canvas Health, a tenant on the other side of the building, said she's supportive of the project, though she didn't know it was in the works.

"That's wonderful. It's great to see the building coming to life. That's a good thing," she said.