Basim Sabri walks around Karmel Plaza, his mall in south Minneapolis where hundreds of Somali-Minnesotans run shops or restaurants.
He's solicitous and deferential to the older women, some in their 90s, who own shops. He jokes around with the younger ones, including the twenty-somethings promoting their latest merchandise on video livestreams.
The Karmel complex is unlike anywhere else in Minnesota. While open to all, most of the merchandise is marketed specifically toward the 76,000-strong Somali diaspora in the state. Many of its store owners sell traditional Somali apparel, with fast-fashion aplomb.
Widely believed to be the nation's largest business center for Somalis, it has produced enough income for tenants to raise a generation of children. It spins off tax revenue equivalent to three Target stores.
"It's not just the money. This is their life," Sabri said. "Some of them make a killing. 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 most colorful business figures in the Twin Cities — funny and pugnacious, visionary and meticulous. I had to meet him.
After all the arrows he has fired and taken himself, 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 turning point when they are new to America, when they are simultaneously vulnerable and vibrant with possibility.
A Palestinian immigrant, he said Karmel got off the ground because he felt an affinity with two Somali immigrants he happened to meet 25 years ago.
"I'm bad at names, but I know people," Sabri said, drawing out the "know."
He actually does know names, said Bashir Garad, the head of the Karmel Plaza Business Association.
"I've never seen anybody who has his memory," Garad said. "He remembers word by word what a tenant says, what he said to them, and every transaction. It's an especially unique talent, right?"
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 room for women that Sabri believes is the only one in the state.
"He respects people," said Farhiya Ahmed, who owns a fabric shop in Karmel today but first moved in with a jewelry and decorations store in 1999. "If they need anything, he gets it done."
The Karmel complex is all about to get much bigger. Construction will finish later this year on an eight-story building — which extends the mall on the first three floors, with five stories of apartments above.
Two officers at his longtime financial partner, St. Louis Park-based Bridgewater Bank, took a long pause when I asked if any other developers in the Twin Cities had built a business like his.
"We've seen individuals that have bought single-family homes they used as rentals, then catapulted from that to do apartment buildings," said Jon Tollefson, who leads commercial lending at Bridgewater. "But not people who have taken his path."
At $50 million, it's by far Sabri's largest project. When done, it will have space for another 300 or so small shops and restaurants, doubling Karmel's retail footprint. There will be doctors' offices and artists studios. Already, it's nearly fully leased.
"That's something we don't usually see, where someone will have retail, residential and office that is fully leased up before it opens for business," Jeff Shellberg, co-founder and chief credit officer at Bridgewater.
Sabri got into development by rehabbing a small Minneapolis apartment building he was living in about 30 years ago. He quickly moved into commercial properties and became a visionary, combative presence on Lake Street.
He clashed at times with his brothers, who also developed real estate, but more often with city officials, usually over building code violations but sometimes more. He spent 18 months in federal prison in the mid-2000s on the bribery conviction, the particulars of which still upset him.
In more recent years, Sabri has fought to unseat council members after disputes. But the current expansion, which will give the Karmel complex a Lake Street front for the first time, sailed through the city approval process in 2020.
Even so, as we walked around the new building on a recent snowy day, the fight came out in Sabri. The city's roadwork and metering on Pillsbury Avenue means that coffee shops in the new building won't have much room for outdoor seating. "I want tables with umbrellas along here," Sabri said.
He has acted as general contractor on most of his projects. He went to Turkey to buy chandeliers for the new building. While there, he saw some window ornaments he liked, took pictures and had them replicated locally.
"I'm very good at trying to figure things, you know? Like 'What does it take for that to happen?'" he said.
The new building occupies the footprint of the original Karmel building and a Walgreens that was heavily damaged by the rioting after the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
When Sabri bought the original building in 1998, it had been a machine shed for a small manufacturer. It had 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 they say, 'Hi, we want to build a coffee shop,'" he recalled. "One of them had this very bright face, just full of life, 24, 25 years old."
They told him they were from Somalia. "He goes 'My brother, there's a lot of Somalis going to be coming and many of us are going to need stores and shops,'" Sabri said. "I was determined right there to help them open a shop. I made the blueprint on the floor. It was simple then."
Mohamud Isse was just out of college when he took over a small personal computer repair business and became one of the first tenants at Karmel. Today, he and his wife run a tax service, a clothing shop and a restaurant in the mall. He's thinking about whether to open another business, perhaps a small grocery, in the new Karmel building.
"The day he put the plan up, everybody signed up for space," Isse said.
The first expansion at Karmel, completed by Sabri's wife and his sister in 2006 when he was in prison, added a 100,000-square-foot building along the Midtown Greenway. That building later got a four-story parking garage.
When this latest project led to the teardown of the original building, Sabri enclosed two levels of the parking garage so none of the storeowners would lose a chance to work. Just across Pleasant Avenue, on the west side of the Karmel complex, Sabri has built two apartment complexes.
Nearby, he's building a 40,000-square-foot grocery store, with an events center and a new office for his real estate firm on top.
"The success of his client base just begets more success for him," Shellberg said.
A short walk north of the Karmel block, Sabri bought land for his next project, a 10-story residential building. And in a sign of growing wealth he sees among Somali-Minnesotans, the new building will be condos rather than apartments.