Council member seeks new mall for East African entrepreneurs

Council Member Abdi Warsame says he's leading an effort to build a cooperatively-owned mall for East African businesses. Photo by Michelle Bruch
Council Member Abdi Warsame says he's leading an effort to build a cooperatively-owned mall for East African businesses. Photo by Michelle Bruch

With more than 100 stores and thousands of daily visitors, Whittier’s Karmel Mall may someday see more competition.

Council Member Abdi Warsame (6th Ward) is promoting the idea of a cooperatively-owned mall in Minneapolis to improve conditions for tenants and ease pressure on the surrounding neighborhood.

Warsame said both Karmel Mall near Pillsbury & Lake and the 24 Mall at 24th & Elliot stand in very dense neighborhoods.

“My priority is not necessarily just to create a mall,” Warsame said. “It’s to alleviate the pressure on the Phillips community.”

Warsame said he’s exploring sites for the mall in North and South Minneapolis.

“Places where it’s not residential, so we don’t repeat the mistakes we have made,” he said.

Multiple developers are interested, he said, and he’s considering a public-private partnership that would rely on East African entrepreneurs.

Karmel Mall owner Basim Sabri, who said his brother and nephew own the 24 Mall, said the initiative is “propaganda.” He questioned who would fund and manage such an enterprise.

“In reality, it’s not something that will happen,” he said. “…Can I be better? Of course I can be.”

He estimated that at least 4,000 people visit the mall on a daily basis.

“Karmel Mall, in the Somali community, is known as the Mall of America for many people in America,” Sabri said. “…Around the Mall of America, it’s busy. You call that negative?”

He said the mall has replaced boarded buildings and criminal activity in the area.

“Now we have businesses. The good comes with the bad. Creates traffic,” he said.

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Inside Karmel Mall, opinions on the idea for a new Somali mall are varied.

One woman who declined to give her name said she’s hearing a “desperate cry” from a council member up for reelection. She was skeptical about the project.

“I don’t think it’s possible,” she said.

She said she didn’t think taxpayers would be willing to invest in a Somali mall — she read through the comments attached to a Jan. 13 Star Tribune story about the proposal.

“The comments were racist,” she said. “They don’t want their tax dollars to go to a Somali mall.”

Others at the mall said a new location would benefit business owners.

“It will have a positive impact on the whole community,” said a woman who declined to give her name. “We have a lot of businesswomen and men but they don’t have a physical location to display their products.”

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As she was speaking, she said several women were mistakenly offering their names to the reporter to open a store at a new mall. Another man, Mohamed Basal, said he’d be willing to invest in the project.

“There is only one guy here that controls everybody,” said customer Fatima Ahmed. “People are afraid that he will throw them out. … Competition is the best way.”

“Rent is month to month,” said Abdi Ahmed, who was visiting a café. “Nobody has a lease. He can kick you out anytime he wants.”

Sabri said concerns about proper leases, ADA compliance and substandard bathrooms are unfounded.

“You go investigate those allegations and you’ll find nothing, that’s a bunch of crap,” he said.

He said the mall serves as an incubator for immigrants without the resources and money to open a business.

Jay Webb, who described himself as a trusted advisor to Sabri, pointed to the story of Mohamud Isse. Isse said he started his business with $500 from Sabri, and now he runs a daycare, restaurant, medical clinic, and an insurance office. Sabri allowed him to run the health clinic rent-free for eight months before he could afford the $1,000 rent, he said.

“Sometimes we tell him this month is very bad,” he said. “He understands, [and he takes] down half the price.”

Outside the mall, members of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood group say they support the idea of a new Somali mall.

“We would love to see more spaces in our community for small business,” McCurley said.

He said the number of neighborhood commercial spaces available at cheaper rates is dwindling.

“The reality is they don’t have another place to go,” McCurley said. “…We have big hopes that the Kmart site will be a space to create some of those new models.”

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Karmel Mall has expanded since its construction in 2005. The City Council voted against an additional 5,600-square-foot expansion in 2015, citing traffic and other impacts on the surrounding area. The issue is currently in litigation.

Sabri’s attorney, Robert Speeter, questioned Warsame’s plan. He cited a city code that says officials should not use their positions to solicit privileges or special treatment, unless they are for the benefit of the city of Minneapolis.

“I think it would be unprecedented for this city council member to advocate for the city to assist to this degree in building [a] competing business to another taxpaying entity in the city of Minneapolis,” he said.

Sabri said he doesn’t foresee another mall coming to fruition, and said he doesn’t expect Warsame to survive another election.

“I know of at least two strong candidates running against him,” Sabri said. “Much stronger than Warsame.”

Warsame said he is not intimidated by political threats.

“I’m not in any way going to back down,” Warsame said. “…Where there is political will, there is a way.”

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