Monday, November 22, 2010

Ground Zero mosque group seeks another back room deal: $5 million US taxpayer dollars from 9/11 redevelopment fund for which it's likely unqualified

No surprise: Ground Zero mosque Imam is in running for Time Magazine Person of the Year. And, the reported $5 million request represents nearly one-third of all the $17 million that is now available. 265 groups have applied for the funding.
  • 11/22/10, Daily Beast: "The application was submitted under a “community and cultural enhancement” grant program administered by the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation (LMDC), which oversaw the $20 billion in federal aid allocated
in the wake of 9/11 and is currently doling out millions in remaining taxpayer funds for community development. The redevelopment board declined to comment on the application (as did officials from Park51), citing the still ongoing and confidential process of determining the grant winners.

While news of the application has not previously been made public, developer Sharif El-Gamal outlined it

  • in closed-door meetings,

according to two individuals he spoke with directly. The thirtysomething, Brooklyn-born El-Gamal is motivated more by real estate ambition—one of these sources describes him as aspiring to be the next Donald Trump—than Islamic theology or ideology.

  • Park51’s developers clearly had a legal right to apply for the grant. A list of Frequently Asked Questions that accompanied the application specifically states that religious organizations can make funding requests for capital projects “as long as the request is for a facility or portion of a facility that is dedicated to non-religious activities or uses.” ...

But the question on whether they could have is trumped by the question of whether they should have. The stated aim of the Park51 developers is to provide a community center for lower Manhattan’s 4,000 Muslim residents. Their own website explained that they understood the need to “appeal to the undecided, and change the conversation about Muslims in America.” It’s pretty clear that this play for federal dollars will generate none of that, starting with the lack of disclosure or community consultation before developers submitted their application, which was due November 5th.

  • "If Imam Feisal and his retinue want know why they're not trusted, here's yet another reason,” says Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam and Director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU, when I asked her about the grant proposal. “The New Yorkers I speak with have questions about Park51.

Requesting money from public coffers without engaging the public shows a staggering lack of empathy—especially from a man who says he's all about dialogue."...

Part of the strangeness of the application is that it blows past the suggested range of $100,000 to $1 million that these grants are supposed to fall to within (I’m told the entire pool for this round of cultural funding will come in under $20 million). According to the two sources knowledgeable about the thinking behind the proposal, the strategy behind the $5 million ballpark was trying to yield a higher figure in the end.

But the project likely doesn’t quality for a grant in the first place. Specifically, the grant criteria mandate a demonstration of a project’s financial feasibility, based on benchmarks set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The government will help complete development projects—but it does not provide seed capital. And in their last public financial statement, Park51 was found to have

  • less than $20,000 in the bank for a project with a slated cost of $100 million.

"Any solicitation for LMDC funds would have to meet the HUD criteria for eligibility," explains Julie Menin, an LMDC board member and the Chairperson of New York’s Community Board 1, which includes the World Trade Center site.

It will be interesting to see how the LMDC deals with the appropriateness of this application, especially given its stated commitment to “an open, inclusive, and transparent planning process in which the public has a central role in shaping the future of Lower Manhattan.”

  • After all, among its advisory councils are representatives of the victim’s families, who are unlikely to be sympathetic to the subject."...
  • The group's rap sheet:
One. Imam Rauf was given $2 million US taxpayer money to repair his buildings but they remained full of violations for years, including utilities unpaid as of September 2010. Star Ledger, 9/13/10: "The Record reported that Rauf received more than $2 million in public money to renovate low-income apartments he owns in Hudson County, including those mentioned in today’s lawsuit."...Complaints included fire hazards, rats, vermin, mold, no heat, bugs, etc. Three. 11/11/10, "Receivership granted for neglected buildings in Union City," Hudson County Reporter. Imam's building seized due to dangerous conditions.
  • Four. As of 9/18, developer El-Gamal declined to pay property tax on the Ground Zero site, telling NY City they placed too high a value on the property. He recently started a payment plan, but the dispute remains open. El-Gamal says the city over-valued the land for the mosque. His dispute with the city to lower its assessed value continues. El-Gamal withheld $224,000 in property tax due on the property which may create another violation.
  • Con Edison still owns half the land, and their agreement states that taxes must be up to date.
The city's finance department confirmed Friday that El-Gamal had begun resolving that debt Wednesday, turning over a check for a little more than $35,000 and signing on to an eight-installment payment plan to pay the rest. Five. NY City wants to give the mosque group $70 million in tax exempt funding.
  • Six. 10/17/10, "The money woes keep growing for a developer of the Ground Zero mosque. Valley National Bank is suing Sharif El-Gamal and his real-estate company, Soho Properties, seeking $95,778 plus interest for an unrepaid loan.
  • The firm took out a $100,000 line of credit, guaranteed by El-Gamal, from the bank in 2008, but defaulted in early 2009, according to court papers.
Seven. The mosque group has another unpaid tax bill of $97,000 due in January (and only $20,000 in the bank). 11/22/10, Daily Beast, "Ground Zero mosque applied for federal 9-11 grant," John Avlon


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