Hoping to create 40 jobs and spark economic activity on a downtrodden corner, city officials helped pastor John Abercrombie build a fast-food restaurant a decade ago in South Austin.
All that remains of those hopes today is a vacant cinder-block shell with blocky plastic letters spelling "GOOD FOOD" above the locked front doors. Abercrombie's restaurant went under amid debts, liens and a lawsuit by the state attorney general alleging his company failed to pay workers overtime wages.
"He's ducking it," said Davonna Woods, a former shift manager at the restaurant. "I don't understand why he won't pay; he's got the money."
While working at the restaurant, Woods once dropped off papers at Abercrombie's south suburban mansion and was awe-struck by the Mercedes, Porsche and other luxury vehicles lining the driveway. The home features a plush movie theater and 36-foot-long indoor swimming pool, records show.
Recalling the grandeur, she said simply: "It makes me angry."
Even as Abercrombie's City Hall-assisted fast food restaurant failed, he was moving on to play a role as joint partner or contractor in numerous government construction or rehab efforts on the West Side launched with millions of taxpayer dollars.
The city's involvement with Abercrombie reflects its scattershot approach to development in South Austin, a community that consistently has been left out of neighborhood development programs during the past decade even as people moved away, businesses closed and homes stood empty.
There have been bright spots for Abercrombie as a developer in recent years — but also a troubling pattern of racking up unpaid taxes, fines and building code violations, including citations for tenants going without heat.
A Tribune examination of Abercrombie's record shows he leveraged political contacts and used his nonprofit status to win government assistance and support his own lifestyle despite a mixed record of delivering for the community in his private and public ventures.
City planners and developers privately say they have been reluctant to launch comprehensive development programs in South Austin because of its scandal-tainted political leadership and a history of churn and collapse among community nonprofits.
Into this void stepped Abercrombie, 57, who grew up on the West Side and is the founder and Apostle of Truth & Deliverance International Ministries, a 1,700-member New Apostolic Movement church in a whitewashed two-story building at 5151 W. Madison St. Abercrombie said he is motivated by a desire to lift up society's castaways and make the West Side a better place.
"I think I've been a solid pillar in the community. I've helped thousands of people," he told the Tribune.
Abercrombie has teamed with Orland Park-based Madison Construction on several successful projects, building a government-funded complex for teenage moms that recently opened at 5317 W. Chicago Ave., as well as the nonprofit health center at 5425 W. Lake St.
But Abercrombie and his companies also have racked up more than $100,000 in housing court fines or unpaid water and tax bills, debts that can jeopardize title to properties and are a sign of poor management. The IRS in 2011 filed a $73,000 tax lien against Abercrombie personally, records show.
In some of the two dozen apartment buildings he controls, tenants have gone without heat or hot water and endured cracked windowpanes, broken plaster, rotting back porches and rat infestation, government records show. Abercrombie controls more than 130 rental units.
"It was never my intent to rip anybody off or take advantage of anyone. It was always my intention to be a blessing," Abercrombie said. "Everything that I've done and all that I've done has been for the good of the community and the good of the people."
City officials say that because Abercrombie has not been the primary owner of any recent city-assisted projects, he did not trigger a background check that would have revealed his debts and fines, and likely would have disqualified him from participation in the deals. "Background checks are only done on ownership entities," explained Peter Strazzabosco, Chicago deputy development commissioner.
In addition to his roles as a construction executive and landlord, Abercrombie runs Kingdom Community Inc., a tax-exempt charity that from 2010 through 2012 garnered more than $1 million in government grants and public support.
Kingdom has won a large state anti-violence grant but says its main mission is to provide destitute Chicagoans with financial advice and foreclosure-prevention counseling — even though Abercrombie and his companies have had several properties put into foreclosure. Among them, at one point, was the Orland Park mansion where he lives.
"I suffered like everybody else," Abercrombie said.