Dearborn Heights and all the HYPEBy Amer ZahrFriday, 02.01.2013, 04:33pm
Everyone knows that Dearborn, Michigan is the center of Arab America. It contains the largest concentration of Arabs anywhere in America. Its main drag, Warren Avenue, is lined with stores, shops, restaurants, and cafes run, owned, and frequented by Arab Americans. Signs displayed in Arabic are the norm. It is home to the one and only Arab-American National Museum.Dearborn is the Arab Disneyland. In the span of a few hours, you can enjoy a shawarma, a hookah, and a demonstration.There is no place like it. Well, there was no place like it. Adjacent to Dearborn lays the city of Dearborn Heights. Dearborn is mostly characterized by smaller homes and bungalows. Dearborn Heights has some bigger homes and is generally viewed as a bit “higher” than Dearborn. Maybe that’s where they got the name.Arab Americans have been living in Dearborn Heights for a long time, but Dearborn has always been the hub. In the past 15 years or so, as many Arab-Americans have done well for themselves (we do have a very high rate of college graduation after all), thousands have moved to Dearborn Heights. There, they can enjoy bigger yards while still being basically connected to Dearborn and its community. As a result, Ford Road, Dearborn Heights’ main thoroughfare, has become filled with Arab American owned and themed establishments. I’m smoking a hookah in Dearborn Heights as I write this column. In Dearborn Heights, one might say that Arabs have “exploded” onto the scene.The transformation of Dearborn Heights is evident to everyone, and perhaps none more so than the white population there, who for many generations had no company. And in case you didn’t know, when we Arabs move in, we move really move in. We bring our markets, our language, our customs, and our cousins.That brings me to the current case of HYPE (Helping Youth Prepare for Excellence). HYPE Athletics was created in 2001, and its stated mission is “to create and strengthen infrastructures that support the positive development of Wayne County youth.” HYPE conducts training camps, leagues, and tournaments in various sports. It also provides free in-school and after-school social services to youth and their families.
HYPE Athletics Recreation Center located on Warren Ave. in Dearborn Heights.
HYPE is a federally registered nonprofit organization, meaning it is tax exempt. After receiving assurances from the city, including a council resolution recognizing its nonprofit status, HYPE built a 104,000 square foot recreation center in Dearborn Heights to further its mission and objectives. The center opened to the general public on May 4, 2012.The city of Dearborn Heights now, however, has decided that HYPE is not nonprofit at all and has assessed the group almost $200,000 in property taxes. HYPE had predicated its entire project on pledges from the city and its mayor, Dan Paletko, that it would not be assessed such fees. HYPE will not be able to survive with the tax burden the city is now imposing.The city of Dearborn Heights is claiming that HYPE does not offer its services “without restrictions” since it charges a membership fee. However, the Michigan Supreme Court has held that a nonprofit charitable institution “can charge for its services as long as the charges are not more than what is needed for its successful maintenance.” HYPE maintains that its membership fees are necessary in order to ensure it can effectively provide services.Now I’ve told you everything I’ve told you so far to now tell you this. While this may all seem like a garden-variety tax dispute between government and a nonprofit institution, it is much more. HYPE’s founder and CEO is Ali Sayed, an Arab American Muslim born and raised in Dearborn. HYPE’s center employs and serves many Arab Americans, as well as any and all community members, including African-Americans, whites, and anyone else. Its Parent Advisory Board and Youth Board include almost 40 Arab Americans who volunteer their time to help HYPE achieve its goals. In other words, Arab American members of the community have built, supported, and enhanced HYPE.This reality has not been lost on Marge Horvath, a member of the Dearborn Heights City Council, who once referred to HYPE as “that Arab center.” Good thing for Ms. Horvath that we are Arabs. If we were black and she had said something like that, CNN and Al Sharpton would be here the next day.Uttering discriminatory statements about Arabs seems entirely acceptable. Arabs are the only group that white people are still allowed to openly talk about in a racist manner. I almost feel bad trying to take that last bastion of prejudice from them. Almost.There is no price to voicing uneasiness about Arabs. No politicians are called out. No leaders are truly held to account. Maybe Al Sharpton can change his name to Ali for a couple days and make his way up here. Maybe we can learn a few things from him.It’s hard not to imagine to how the case HYPE vs. Dearborn Heights has an element of racism to it. Why wouldn’t a city like Dearborn Heights be excited that a nonprofit organization like HYPE was running a massive recreation center within its limits? Why wouldn’t Dearborn Heights encourage HYPE, a group that invokes and encourages civic duty and a commitment to community? One would think that Dearborn Heights would help HYPE solidify its nonprofit status instead of challenging it.The city must know that it will most likely never get the tax money it is now looking for. If HYPE is not granted nonprofit status by Dearborn Heights, the only outcome will be the closing of its doors. Sadly, to some in the city, that will be seen as a victory.– Amer Zahr is an Arab-American stand-up comedian and writer. Drawing on his experiences growing up as a child of Palestinian refugees, he finds the humor in everyday cultural situations. Visit http://www.amerzahr.com.
HYPE founder/CEO fighting $200K tax bill
By Joe Slezak
Press & Guide Newspapers
File photo by Joe Slezak Ali Sayed, founder and CEO of the HYPE Recreation Center, stands in the library/resource room late last year. While HYPE might be best known for its athletic facilities, it offers other services, as well.DEARBORN HEIGHTS — Ali Sayed is worried.Angry, too, that his dream is being threatened.
Sayed, 32, is founder and CEO of Helping Youth Progress & Excel, which fully opened the HYPE Recreation Center in May at 23302 W. Warren Ave.
His concern isn’t about how many people are coming through the doors — HYPE has sold about 1,500 memberships and has nearly 4,000 members, which pleases him.
He’s worried that HYPE is facing nearly $200,000 in property, real and personal tax bills that he says it shouldn’t owe because it is a federally registered 501(c)3 nonprofit.
The city disagrees, and has sent three tax bills.
The city has maintained that HYPE’s application was defective; Sayed disagrees.
Mayor Dan Paletko said Monday that it’s not up to him or the City Council to determine if an organization can receive a state property tax exemption.
“It’s not a political decision,” he said. “It’s not a decision I can grant.
“The key to influencing the decision is fixing the application and providing the information. … If you’re qualified, you’re qualified.”
Paletko said he isn’t sure what is deficient about the application because he’s not an expert in the field.
The matter is before the Michigan Tax Tribunal.
Sayed said last week that if HYPE has to pay the taxes, it will have to lay off 15 of its 57 employees and cut some programs, like free after-school tutoring.
He said about 6,000 children in several area communities received free tutoring in 2012. It also has held campaigns to help charitable groups like The Salvation Army, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation and the Coats for Kids Foundation.
HYPE’s annual budget is about $1.4 million.
“It’s going to cause drastic changes to the organization,” Sayed said. “We are at risk now. Day in and day out, we’re accounting for these taxes.”
HYPE filed the appeal with the Michigan Tax Tribunal last January. A prehearing is scheduled for April 3, and a full hearing will be set after that. If the tribunal rules in favor of the city, Sayed said HYPE and its attorney will take the matter to the Michigan Court of Appeals.
If HYPE loses there, Sayed said the organization will pay the taxes, cut programs and lay off the 15 employees.
He said he simply wants HYPE recognized as a nonprofit organization similar to the YMCA, YWCA or The Salvation Army, but without a religious aspect, and he said he’s tried “diplomatic approaches.”
“The reason has to be discriminatory — there’s no other reason to come into play,” Sayed said, adding that he’s heard his facility has been labeled as “Arab center” by some city officials — not Paletko — though it is open to everyone.
He said he’s heard rumors that HYPE is going to fail or be taken over by the city. He said the organization has lost donors and grants.
Sayed recently posted a Facebook message to supporters that said HYPE is facing “racial discrimination” and its 14th Amendment rights of due process and equal protection of the laws are being violated.
“HYPE is very proud of the diverse environment within the center,” he wrote. “The issue stands that the effect of the decision by the city and the mayor will be directed at the thousands (of) families that we serve. We need to realize that white, black or green, rich or poor, short or tall, HYPE relieves the city of a burden that it cannot meet” because it doesn’t have a comprehensive, city-owned recreation center like in Dearborn or Livonia, for example.
HYPE supporters also have started an online campaign at GoPetition.com to urge the city to recognize HYPE as a nonprofit, charitable, tax-exempt organization and to permanently eliminate its tax bill.
Sayed also is asking supporters to send letters to the tribunal. And, he plans to hold a press/community conference in February to state his case. A date has not been set.
“We at HYPE Athletics Community want nothing more but to be supported by the entire city and its elected officials,” Sayed wrote in an email to supporters. “We hope that those elected officials as well as appointed officials stand in alliance with us and the rest of the community.”
He added that HYPE’s goal is “a positive outcome and relationship” with Paletko and the City Council.
The land previously was owned by Wayne County, making it tax exempt. When 36 acres was transferred to HYPE on Dec. 30, 2010, the city determined that the land became taxable, which Paletko said is a legal, not political, question.
Of the 36 acres, HYPE followed through on plans to return about 29 to the county after using about $7.8 million in federal and state grants to clean the entire parcel. Street cleaner waste was dumped there before 1970.
“Back to the public, as we promised,” Sayed said.
Paletko said last year that the city did not take the tax decision lightly, and consulted with attorney Derk Beckerleg of the law firm Secrest Wardle in Troy, who specializes in property tax appeals and zoning matters. He agreed with the city in a letter he sent in July.
“With respect to nonprofit charitable institutions, the courts have generally held that nonprofit organizations seeking an exemption from property taxes as a charitable institution must show that their activities, when taken as a whole, constitute a charitable gift for the benefit of the general public without restriction or for the benefit of an indefinite number of persons,” he wrote.
Some of HYPE’s programs are free, but there are membership fees. It offers discounted rates to needy families.
HYPE cited a state law that says, “Real or personal property owned and occupied by a nonprofit charitable institution while occupied by that nonprofit charitable institution solely for the purposes for which that nonprofit charitable institution was incorporated is exempt from the collection of taxes under this act.”
The state Supreme Court previously established a six-point list that determines if an organization is a “charitable institution,” and Sayed said HYPE meets all six:
•It must be a nonprofit institution.
•It must be organized chiefly, but not solely, for charity.
•It must serve any person who needs the type of charity offered. It cannot choose who deserves those services based on the person not being part of a chosen group.
•It must follow provisions set forth in United Methodist Church Inc. v. Sylvan Township, a 1982 ruling that says a charity must follow existing laws and benefit an “indefinite number of persons” through public buildings or works that lessens the “burdens of government.”
•It can charge for services as long as the charges go toward maintaining the services.
•It must meet the financial standards of a charitable organization.
HYPE’s mission “is to create and strengthen infrastructures that support the positive development of youth through athletic participation and competition, educational tutoring and literacy development, and social awareness with mentoring, counseling, life skills training and substance abuse education and prevention.”
The 104,000-square-foot center, which cost $11 million to build, has five basketball/volleyball courts, a 1/8-mile track above the courts, separate men’s and women’s weight training rooms, a computer lab, a library/resource room, classrooms and a room that can be used for meetings. About 35,000 square feet was to be used by Zaman International, a Dearborn-based charity, but it decided not to use the space. It owns the space and is leasing it to HYPE.
HYPE also has an office at 15544 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, that houses much of its administration and some of its nonathletic programs. The city exempted HYPE from paying property taxes.
Sayed, a Dearborn High School graduate, founded HYPE in 2001, and it received federal nonprofit status in 2007. Its programs have been based in several communities. In 2006, Sayed created a business plan with the aim of opening what’s now the HYPE Recreation Center. He visited 30 sites and chose the county-owned land on Warren Avenue with the blessing of city officials, he said.
The building and land have been assessed at about $2.5 million by the city, though officials have said that it’ll be assessed at nearly $5.3 million when the building is determined to be finished.
Paletko said he supports HYPE.
“They do some good programming over there,” he said. “I’m tired of being a political football.
“It’s implying something that is not true. It’s not helping the cause.
“The organization getting it or not getting it is fact-based.”
Contact Staff Writer Joe Slezak at 1-734-246-0835 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ JoeSlezak1.
Mayor Paletko, you say this is not political. Well politics is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case it will be in the eyes of the voters and former supporters. You should do something fast and dramatic to turn this into a win win for you and the City, otherwise you will lose and the City will lose. Time is running out. Once the decision is out of your hands it will be too late. There will be no going back. The voters and supporters will remember you come election time.
Why does this have to an arab vs. non-arab thing? If there’s a legal disagreement then fine, fight that out the proper way. But bringing race into it when someone isn’t getting their way is insulting to people who really do face true racism.