Pizza, pizza: $1 million a pie?

Posted: June 17, 2014

THE LANCASTER Avenue Redevelopment Corp. talked a good game when tax dollars were up for grabs.

In applications for state grants, the Overbrook-based nonprofit outlined its plans to revitalize the raggedy commercial corridor between 52nd and 63rd streets, reduce blight, provide housing support to seniors, settle school conflicts, build homes, create jobs and re-establish Lancaster Avenue as an "important gateway" in Philadelphia.

LARC set up shop on 61st Street, and the money flowed - about $2 million in state and city funds.

"We're making investments like this across the state so more people will have the opportunity to play a role in Pennsylvania's economic recovery," then-Gov. Ed Rendell said in a 2006 news release touting the disbursement of $1 million in state funds to LARC.

Mayor Nutter's administration also backed the group, kicking in about $400,000 in city funds.

So what did taxpayers get in return for their investment?

Cheap pizza, unpaid taxes and a state legislator who wants nothing to do with a shopping center that was named after her.

Nearly four years after groundbreaking for the Louise Williams Bishop Retail and Commercial Center, at 59th Street and Lancaster Avenue, the gray cinderblock building remains unfinished and mostly vacant.

The only tenant is a Little Caesars Pizza peddling $5 pies. The bushes out front are a magnet for water bottles and food wrappers. The remnants of the shredded grand-opening flags still dangle over the cramped parking lot.

LARC and its property-holding company have been slapped with city, state and federal property liens. PECO is suing them for $6,642 for unpaid utility bills. United Bank of Philadelphia says LARC owes it $134,467. Realtors say LARC stiffed them for $18,061. In March, the IRS announced that it had revoked LARC's tax-exempt status because it had failed to file financial documents.

"It was kind of an experiment," said Delano Shane, LARC's executive director. "LARC's mission was to work on corridor revitalization. We got a lot of help from the city and state."

'Queen of the Airwaves'

LARC's chairman, Anthony Lewis Jr., a member of the city's Board of Revision of Taxes, said the nonprofit got the state funds with the help of Bishop, 80, a state representative since 1989 who hosts a 5 a.m. weekday gospel radio show.

WURD-AM's website calls her "Queen of the Airwaves Rev. Louise Williams Bishop."

Financial records that LARC filed with the IRS show that LARC paid Bishop's daughter, Tamika Mezache, about $120,000 over three years. The records show that she served as treasurer and worked part time, but Shane said she also was executive director before he took over. LARC's finances after mid-2007 are a mystery because the nonprofit does not appear to have filed the required forms with the IRS.

Business owners on Lancaster Avenue say they have seen no commercial revitalization in the West Philly neighborhood, home to several auto-repair shops, fast-food restaurants, vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

"I think this project has been mismanaged since Day One, at the minimum. At the maximum, who knows where monies went? It just seems fishy," said Dan Leider, vice president of Herbert Yentis Realtors, which is suing LARC's property-holding company for nonpayment.

"We never got paid," Leider said. "Not a penny."

Murky origins

A 2008 City Council resolution honoring Lewis' career describes Lewis and Bishop as co-founders of LARC. But Lewis told the Daily News last week that Bishop's role was limited to securing public funding for the nonprofit.

"We were going to her for money to try to get this stuff off the ground. It was her district," said Lewis, who is paid $70,000 a year as a BRT member. Nutter recommended him for the post in 2010, having previously appointed him to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Shane and Lewis said LARC's state and city grants were spent on the failed shopping center at 59th Street and Lancaster Avenue, where construction began in late 2010. But records show that LARC spent more than $400,000 in consulting, management fees and staff costs between 2002 and 2006.

Lewis said some of that money might have gone to the Housing Association of Delaware Valley, a nonprofit housing-counseling agency for which he had served as managing director until 2008. He said LARC was essentially a subsidiary of the housing association, which maintained LARC's financial records and provided housing counseling and oversight through LARC.

"Our staff went out and dealt with the problems in the area," Lewis said.

In 2008, Sharif Street, son of former Mayor John Street, briefly served as the housing association's director. He was replaced in 2010 by John McDaniel, a crooked political consultant who held patronage jobs in the Street and Nutter administrations. McDaniel pleaded guilty in federal court last year to stealing more than $100,000 from Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown's campaign account. Lewis said McDaniel was not involved with LARC.

Lewis said that Mezache, Bishop's daughter, had worked at the housing association, but that he later named her executive director of LARC. He said he did not consider it a conflict for LARC to pay Mezache even though it was funded with public grants obtained through her mother's office.

"Tamika was capable. I asked her specifically to do it," Lewis said of Mezache. "I will be quite honest with you: The representative wondered if it would be a problem. I didn't think it would be a problem."

Robert Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said he could not comment on LARC specifically. But if a lawmaker uses his or her position to benefit an immediate family member, that could be a violation of the Ethics Act's conflict-of-interest provision, he said.

"You'd have to look at what role the public official played in the nonprofit getting funding," Caruso said.

It's not entirely clear how much money LARC got. Some contracts have been destroyed under the state's records-retention policy. But public records, interviews and news clips show that it received at least $1.9 million.

Lewis said LARC did get some smaller grants, though, and Shane's LinkedIn profile says that as LARC's executive director, he "developed funding packages totaling more than $3M in State and City Grants and private financing to develop a new retail center construction project."

Bishop did not return phone calls from the Daily News seeking comment. A staffer in her district office referred questions about LARC and the shopping center to Lewis.

"She's not dealing with it now," the staffer said. "All calls need to go to Mr. Lewis."

Groundbreaking photo

Bishop had a different attitude in October 2010, when she attended a groundbreaking event for LARC's shopping center and posed for a photo - holding a shovel and wearing a hardhat - alongside Shane and Lewis.

Her news release, headlined "Bishop spearheads Lancaster Avenue revitalization project," said LARC was created to revitalize the shopping corridor and to "build housing in the surrounding area."

"This project is designed to provide more jobs in the neighborhood for the people in my legislative district," Bishop said in the release. "Lancaster Avenue is coming up."

LARC and its property-holding company have failed to pay taxes and utility bills at the shopping center, where Little Caesars opened in 2012, according to court documents. Bills and court notices have piled up at a custom-frame shop at 61st Street and Lancaster Avenue, where LARC's office had been located.

Bishop has sought to distance herself from LARC, which was based two blocks from her district office, but there are several documented connections between her and the nonprofit.

In a 2004 letter to then-state Rep. Alan Butkovitz, Bishop enclosed a copy of a LARC grant and wrote to Butkovitz: "As always, thank you for your assistance and please call me with any questions or concerns you have regarding this grant."

Tyron Ali connection?

Bishop is one of four state representatives allegedly caught accepting cash payments from Philadelphia lobbyist Tyron Ali, who was recording the meetings while working as a confidential informant for the state Attorney General's Office, the Inquirer reported in March. Bishop allegedly took $1,500 from Ali.

According to a person familiar with the case, Bishop asked Ali in October 2010 if he could help bring a bank into a building operated by a nonprofit community-development corporation on Lancaster Avenue - an apparent reference to LARC. She said the nonprofit had obtained state funding and had Nutter's support, the source said.

Ali instead offered to "make a donation" and handed Bishop $500 in cash. Bishop put the money in her purse, according to the Inquirer. Four days later, LARC broke ground on the Lancaster Avenue shopping center. It was named for Bishop.

Bishop has told the Inquirer that she doesn't know Ali: "Never met him," she said. "Never had any dealings with him."

Attorney General Kathleen Kane quashed the Ali sting, saying it was poorly managed and possibly tainted by racism. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is looking into whether his office could pursue charges against Bishop and the other officials allegedly caught on tape accepting cash or gifts.

Shane and Mezache have both been paid by Bishop's campaign committee, while Lewis is a regular donor to her campaign. In 2006, Bishop's campaign loaned LARC $3,000, which it later paid back. The campaign has also paid Bishop about $80,000 over the past 10 years with descriptions such as "clerical support," "reimbursement" and "purchase stamps." Most of the payments are round figures. Bishop, a Democrat, did not face a Republican opponent during that decade.

Mezache could not be reached for comment on her work for LARC or her mother's campaign. She describes herself on LinkedIn as a self-employed "fund development consultant."

Shane, director of the People for People Institute at Eastern University, in St. Davids, Radnor Township, Delaware County, said LARC is looking for businesses to bring into the shopping center and hopes the project will come together in the next couple of months.

"It's a fledgling nonprofit," he said. "It's really about getting tenants in here and reconvening and figuring out what the new direction of the organization might take and assessing the impact that the commercial development and streetscaping will have on the neighborhood and reconnecting with neighbors."

'Going out of business'

But Lewis, who initially had hoped to attract $12 million in state, city and federal funding, conceded that LARC is "in the process of actually going out of business."

"The funding sources aren't there like they once were," Lewis said. "I'm retired now, and the folks who were around aren't around."

Leider, the vice president of the real estate firm suing LARC's property-holding company, received another explanation. He said last week that Shane recently told him that LARC had found a buyer for the building and that his firm would get the money it's owed at settlement.

"I don't know what the truth is anymore," Leider said. "We don't believe anything until it happens."

On Twitter: @wbender99


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