It would be wonderful to say that the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce, a local agency established in 1999 to help minority businesses, has had great success in helping grow such businesses, and that its financial situation is transparent and clearly in order. Regrettably, and despite mounting questions, little is known about either side of its business. Worse, MCC officials have declined to comment on much of anything to this newspaper's reporters since questions arose about its operation over a month ago.
Meanwhile, the questions are stacking up, the clouds are getting darker, and two federal agencies - the FBI and the Department of Housing and Urban Development - have joined the hunt to find out how the MCC has been spending its money.
The two federal agencies want the MCC to document how it spent a $545,000 federal grant from HUD in 2006 that was to be used to build a Business Solutions Center. So far, the MCC has disclosed only that it used $200,000 of the HUD grant to purchase three parcels of land on M.L.King Boulevard, and used another $106,400 a year later to fund what seems to be an extravagantly overpriced plan to develop the still moribund project.
The Chattanooga Community Development Financial Institution, or CCDFI, an arm of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, is considering foreclosing on two as-yet-unused parcels of property for the same project that the MCC bought with a $574,000 loan from it in October 2008. That was after the nation's housing bust and just as the financial implosion began.
One glaring question that begs an answer is why the MCC spent $507,000, the bulk of the CCDFI loan, to purchase the two parcels when their recorded appraisal value was just $211,000 - without obtaining a new appraisal. Given the nation's financial meltdown at that moment, the purchase arrangement is startling. Another question is why the CCDFI also gave the MCC an interest-only payment plan for the first 33 months of the loan, which is now in default. Given the circumstances - the MCC's executive director, Sherrie Gilchrist, is a member of the CCDFI board - the CCDFI's fiscal laxity in this instance is troubling.
Among other questions are: Why Gilchrist has drawn an extravagant salary and incurred usually high travel expenses over the past five years while her organization was increasingly running in the red; and, why she and the MCC's board have declined to disclose completely how more than $1.1 million in the HUD grant and CCDFI loan, and an additional $2.3 million in city and county taxpayer support - along with other donor funds - have been spent.
These and other questions arose after an audit by the city alleged financial mismanagement at the MCC and revealed that its salaries, travel expenses and operating expenses were unusually high and well beyond the norm for most nonprofit agencies.
Gilchrist has told City Council members that development of the business center, which lagged from 2006 into 2008, languished after the recession began in 2008. But she and several of her directors have failed to return repeated calls to this paper's Cliff Hightower, who has reported extensively on the agency. It was reporting by this paper's reporter, Judy Walton, which initially revealed discrepancies in the MCC's annual budget request to the City Council and County Commission that triggered the city's audit.
Given Gilchrist's refusal to discuss the MCC's finances, the agency's funding support has begun to dry up. BlueCross BlueShield, TVA, Erlanger, Volkswagen, EPB and city and county officials have withheld new funding pending clarity about MCC's financial status, and the outcome of the HUD and FBI inquiries.
Donors and city and county officials have good reason to be wary about further funding for the Multicultural Chamber of Commerce. Its stated purpose is worthy, but it merits no trust until it provides full disclosure and documents its work.