Out of Africa

African immigrant Tseghe Foote came to the United States and opened a small business, only to discover it's a jungle out there.

In a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court, the native Ethiopian accuses Denver's Tabor Center shopping mall of trying to evict her because of the name of her business: The Africa House. According to the complaint, mall manager Daniel J. Hill told Foote he wanted her and her store out because "when we have a name like your name, the value of the property goes down."

In the complaint, attorney David R. Fine argues that the mall's actions were "based in whole or in part on the African nature of the merchandise in the Africa House, the store's name, and Ms. Foote's race." The suit asks that the mall be prohibited from evicting Foote and also asks for compensatory and punitive damages.

"I'm grateful to have a system like we do, for me to participate and show them they can't do this to me," says Foote, who came to America in 1976. Now a U.S. citizen, she says she initially feared eviction during the busy holiday shopping season. However, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, she and the mall reached a temporary settlement under which the Africa House will move to another space in the mall while the suit is being heard. Though Foote's complaint specifically accuses mall management of racial prejudice, she insists that the controversy "is not a black thing or a white thing; it's just an American thing. If I pay rent and have a decent place, why do I have to be out of business? If they would have taken time to know me, this wouldn't have happened."

An attorney for the mall says it never did happen. "Those are horrific allegations in the complaint," says James L. Aab. "They're terrible." And Aab insists they're not true. Mall owner Tabor Center Associates and its management company, The Yarmouth Group, don't wish to comment specifically on Foote's charges, says the attorney. But they categorically deny hatching a conspiracy to rid the mall of black-oriented merchandise.

"Before this suit was even filed, she was offered other space in the center," says Aab, who insists the dispute is a landlord-tenant scrap over floor space that has nothing to do with Foote's skin color or the ethnic nature of her merchandise.

But Foote's complaint paints a different picture. According to that document, Hill told Foote this past September that her store didn't "mix" well with the mall's other shops. At a second meeting, says the complaint, Hill informed Foote that the Africa House name was dragging down the value of the property. At a third meeting on October 1, Foote claims, she, Hill and a real estate broker from the firm of Grubb & Ellis discussed changing the name of the store, but Hill ultimately stated that the Africa House wouldn't be given a lease, even with a less objectionable moniker.

Foote, who recently took out a $100,000 loan backed by the federal Small Business Administration, says she'll change the name of the store if that's what the mall wants.

"I was willing to change the name," she says. "I'm still willing. I'll change the name, because I don't want to be bankrupted."

Aab acknowledges that the three meetings referred to in the complaint took place and that the subject of a possible name change came up, though he says he isn't sure who broached the topic. But he describes the complaint's other allegations as pure fiction. He's not calling Foote a liar, adds Aab, just suggesting that her recollection is skewed. "People have their own perception of things," he says, "and sometimes they truly believe their perceptions."

The reason Foote was asked to vacate her space, claims Aab, was that she was on a month-to-month lease and another client was willing to sign a long-term lease. "There was other space in the center they offered to move her to on the same basis she was on," he says. "Whatever happened between them, I have no idea, but things kind of got out of whack, and the lawsuit got filed."

Foote says she used her own money to start her shop, which is stocked with jewelry, statues, clothing and other imported items. She began ten years ago at the Tivoli shopping plaza, then moved to Cherry Creek and came to the Tabor Center just before lower downtown began a boom sparked by the construction of Coors Field.

Business has been good, says Foote, thanks in large part to purchases by European tourists. Far from representing a drain on the Tabor Center, she says, her store has been one of the most successful in the mall, which has struggled to keep pace with more upscale suburban shopping centers.

And like any good businesswoman, Foote has made a few connections within the local community. For instance, she's a close friend of Wayne Cauthen, the director of Mayor Wellington Webb's office of contract compliance. That's the city agency charged with ensuring that minority- and woman-owned businesses are hired in sufficient numbers on city jobs.

Foote says Cauthen had nothing to do with her decision to take the mall owners to court. Instead, she says, she learned her lessons about how to succeed in American business on her own.

"I told them this," Foote says of the mall's owners. "In America, the right thing is to fight.

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Andy Van De Voorde