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Karmel Mall’s Basim Sabri makes his biggest move, a sign of growing immigrant prosperity

Basim Sabri walks around Karmel Plaza, his mall in south Minneapolis where hundreds of Minnesota Somalis run shops or restaurants.

He is caring and deferential to older women, some in their 90s, who own stores. He jokes around with younger people, including twenty-somethings who promote their latest wares on live video streams.

The Karmel Complex is unlike anywhere else in Minnesota. Although open to all, most goods are marketed specifically to the 76,000 strong Somali diaspora in the state. Many of its shop owners sell traditional Somali clothing, with a fast fashion aplomb.

Widely regarded as the country’s biggest business center for Somalis, it has produced enough revenue for tenants to raise a generation of children. It generates tax revenue equivalent to three Target stores.

“It’s not just the money. It’s their life,” Sabri said. “Some of them are killing it. Some don’t really care. They don’t want to be rich. They just come here because they want to meet and talk.”

Sabri, in his early 60s, has long been one of the Twin Cities’ most colorful business figures – funny and pugnacious, visionary and meticulous. I had to meet him.

After all the arrows he’s shot and taken, including a stint in federal prison for bribing a city councilman, Sabri has proven more than resilient.

He has created wealth, not just for himself, but for hundreds of people at that watershed moment when they are new to America, when they are both vulnerable and full of opportunity.

A Palestinian immigrant, he said Karmel took off because he felt an affinity with two Somali immigrants he met 25 years ago.

“I’m bad at names, but I know people,” Sabri said, emphasizing the “knowledge.”

He actually knows names, said Bashir Garad, the head of the Karmel Plaza Business Association.

“I’ve never seen anyone who has his memory,” Garad said. “He remembers word for word what a tenant says, what he said to him and every transaction. It’s a particularly unique talent, isn’t it?”

The complex houses one of the largest mosques in the Twin Cities, which various imams reserve to lead prayers. It also houses a large prayer hall for women which, according to Sabri, is the only one in the state.

“He respects people,” said Farhiya Ahmed, who now owns a fabric shop in Karmel but first moved into a jewelry and decorations store in 1999. “If they need anything whatever, he does.”

The Karmel complex is about to get much bigger. Construction will wrap later this year on an eight-story building – which extends the mall over the first three floors, with five floors of apartments above.

Two officers at his longtime financial partner, St. Louis Park-based Bridgewater Bank, paused for a long time when I asked if other Twin Cities developers had built a business like his.

“We’ve seen individuals who bought single-family homes that they used as rentals and then were catapulted from them to do apartment buildings,” said Jon Tollefson, who heads up commercial lending at Bridgewater. “But not the people who followed his path.”

At $50 million, this is by far Sabri’s biggest project. When complete, there will be room for around 300 more small shops and restaurants, doubling Karmel’s retail footprint. There will be doctors’ offices and artists’ studios. Already, it is almost entirely rented.

“This is something that we don’t typically see, where someone will have retail businesses, residences and offices that are fully leased before they open,” said Jeff Shellberg, co-founder and chief credit officer at Bridgewater.

Sabri got into development by rehabilitating a small apartment building in Minneapolis that he lived in about 30 years ago. He quickly moved into commercial properties and became a visionary and combative presence on Lake Street.

He occasionally clashed with his brothers, who also developed real estate, but more often with city officials, usually for building code violations, but sometimes more. He spent 18 months in federal prison in the mid-2000s for bribery, the details of which still upset him.

In recent years, Sabri has fought to overthrow council members after arguments. But the current expansion, which will give the Karmel complex frontage on Lake Street for the first time, went through the city’s approval process in 2020.

Even so, as we were walking through the new building on a recent snowy day, the fight broke out in Sabri. Roadworks and city counters on Pillsbury Avenue mean cafes in the new building won’t have much room to sit outside. “I want tables with umbrellas here,” Sabri said.

He acted as general contractor on most of his projects. He went to Turkey to buy chandeliers for the new building. There he saw window ornaments he liked, took pictures and reproduced them locally.

“I’m very good at trying to figure things out, you know? Like, ‘What does it take to make this happen?'” he said.

The new building occupies the footprint of the original Karmel building and a Walgreens that was heavily damaged by rioting after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

When Sabri purchased the original building in 1998, it was a machine shed for a small manufacturer. There was no carpet, no windows, and a hole in the roof. One day, he says, he was inside “sitting on a bucket smoking a cigar” and wondering what to do with it.

“Out of the blue, two guys walk in and say, ‘Hi, we want to build a cafe,'” he recalls. “One of them had this very bright face, just full of life, 24, 25.”

They told him they were from Somalia. “He says ‘Brother, there are a lot of Somalis who are going to come and a lot of us are going to need shops and boutiques,'” Sabri said. “I was determined to help them open a store. I made the plan on the floor. It was simple then.”

Mohamud Isse was fresh out of college when he took over a small personal computer repair business and became one of Karmel’s first tenants. Today, he and his wife run a tax department, clothing store and restaurant in the mall. He is considering whether to open another business, perhaps a small grocery store, in the new Karmel building.

“The day he set up the plan, everyone signed up for the space,” Isse said.

Karmel’s first expansion, completed by Sabri’s wife and sister in 2006 while he was in prison, added a 100,000 square foot building along Midtown Greenway. This building then got a four-story parking lot.

When this latest project led to the dismantling of the original building, Sabri closed off two levels of the parking garage so that none of the tradesmen would lose a chance to work. Just across Pleasant Avenue on the west side of the Karmel complex, Sabri built two apartment complexes.

Nearby, he is building a 40,000 square foot grocery store, complete with an event center and a new office for his real estate agency.

“The success of his clientele just breeds more success for him,” Shellberg said.

Just steps north of the Karmel block, Sabri has purchased land for his next project, a 10-story apartment building. And in a sign of growing wealth he sees among Somalis in Minnesota, the new building will consist of condos rather than apartments.

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