Several merchants told to vacate downtown Willmar, Minn., mall by Sept. 30
WILLMAR — Since 2007 Luqmaan Mohumud has steadily built up his grocery store and coffee shop in the Centre Point Mall in downtown Willmar.
Most of his customers are fellow Somalis who live and work in Willmar. With well-stocked shelves and expanded services, Mohumud said his business, Mubarek Grocery, was starting to be profitable for his family.
That's why he was shocked to receive a letter Friday stating that the building was being sold and he had until Sept. 30 to move out.
"This was unexpected," said Mohumud through a translator, Awil Ali. "This destroys our dreams."
About a half-dozen tenants who lease space at the east end of the mall received the same letter from Citizens Alliance Bank.
The bank has several locations in the region, including the main office in Clara City.
The letter says the bank is selling its property, and the bank is thus terminating the tenants' leases. There are other sections of the mall owned by different entities and not affected by this sale.
All but one of the businesses in this part of the building are owned and operated by immigrants from East Africa.
"They're all upset about it," said Mohamed Mohamed, who said he invested $15,000 in new flooring at his Akram Coffee Shop that he opened earlier this year in the mall. "It's unbelievable."
The letter from the bank said the building was being sold and tenants had to remove all personal property and "vacate the premises" by the end of the day of Sept. 30.
Although at least one business owner said he believed he had a yearly lease contract, some shop owners had apparently been leasing space on a month-to-month basis.
"We thank you for your anticipated cooperation and wish you well in your future endeavors," said the letter, which was signed by Philip Forstrom, bank owner and chairman of the bank's board of directors.
Luqmaan Mohumud questioned how he can find a new place to move his business in 45 days.
Bashir Yusuf, who opened the Somali Star several years ago, said he spent $20,000 to upgrade the plumbing and build the store's infrastructure. "I did everything," said Yusuf.
When asked what he was going to do, he responded: "I don't know. I'm shocked."
The mall was abuzz with the news of the termination of their leases and word quickly spread of a meeting with city leaders Friday afternoon in the library. Several individuals who spoke to the West Central Tribune before the meeting said that they hoped the city would provide some kind of help.
As members from the Somali community crowded into that meeting, however, two metro representatives from a conservative organization called Minority Liberty Alliance talked about the importance of voting for people who shared their similar family values, including pro-life, traditional marriage and school vouchers.
"You are Americans now," said Dan Severson, a former Republican candidate for secretary of state. "You need to be a voice in your government."
Severson and Ahmed Issee were apparently in Willmar in an outreach mission for the Minority Liberty Alliance and that meeting was meshed with the meeting the Somali shop owners wanted with city officials to get answers about the future of their businesses.
Mayor Frank Yanish and City Council members Ron Christianson and Jim Dokken were at the meeting and could provide little comfort other than to offering help identify empty buildings in town where businesses could possibly be relocated.
Selling a building where tenants lease space is how private enterprise works and not something that involves the City Council, said Christianson. "There's not a whole lot we can do."
"It is a private matter," said Yanish, who suggested the tenants talk to the new owner of the mall to see if they would continue to lease space to the business owners.
The name of the new owner could not be confirmed Friday.
Luqmaan Mohumud told the city representatives that he pays taxes and brings business to town. He asked if he had a right to ask the city for help.
Christianson said perhaps the council member from that ward could intervene by talking to the new landlord on the businesses' behalf. But he said if the owner has plans for the building for their own use, the tenants will have to go elsewhere.
"That may not be a bad thing," said Yanish, adding that a new location might be better than where they are at now.
For those that invested money to install floors and plumbing, however, the move could mean a financial loss.
The mayor and council representatives invited the group to come to a city committee or council meeting to express their concerns.
Abdirizak "Zak" Mahboub, who does advocacy work in the Somali community, thanked the city representatives for the meeting. He said this was the first time they had met the mayor and he looked forward to future communication with the city as well as with Severson's group, to discuss other issues like the lack of affordable housing in Willmar.
Mahboub said it was the first time a conservative organization had reached out to the Somali community in Willmar.
"We never see the Republican Party," said Mohamed Bihi, a longtime shop owner in Willmar. He said Somalis agree with many of the conservative issues but the party needs to "open the door" to Somalis.
Severson said he "apologized" for conservatives "not being at the table" with the Somali community in the past and that he hoped it would change on the local, state and national levels.