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The Money Trails at Park51

By Avi Zenilman
Tuesday, September 7th, 2010
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As the fight over the Cordoba Initiative’s project blocks away from Ground Zero continues to drag into the New York primary season, it’s worth dodging the political footballs flying around and asking the basic question: Will the thing actually get built?

It’s still unclear where the funding for the estimated $100 million community project will come from. Sharif El-Gamal, the 38-year-old developer behind the plan, bought the 17-storey building (which used to hold a Burlington Coat Factory) in July 2009 for less than $5 million (a price that some are now saying was weirdly cheap) from the family that owned the place.

El-Gamal has not sketched out clear programming plans for Park51, nor has he released a design for the community center, nor has he released any feasibility studies. The plan was to raise the first $70 million by selling tax-exempt bonds and the final $30 million through a board filled with local corporate and cultural luminaries. Russell Simmons has already signed on. While the fires of controversy flared up in August when the Park51 spokesman intimated that they’d accept money from Iranian and Saudi sources, it’s been made clear that the project will not accept money from donors with “un-American” values.

But given that local Muslim groups have wondered if the money would be better spent on other projects, and only 35% of New Yorkers actually favor building the center, raising money looks like it will be a constant slog. Anyone, public or private, bank or individual, who finances the project will come under intense scrutiny, especially now that opposition has become a Republican article of faith. It won’t just be a political statement; it will be a political statement with costs in time, money, and investigations.

Tracking the money—a Saudi prince (who is also a major investor in Fox News) helping the Imam who is the de facto spiritual leader of the project, a super-hawkish conservative think tank in D.C. linked to defense contractors that is helping to organize anti-mosque protests — has become the new undercard fight of this political battle, but the amount of money in question is nothing compared to the amount needed to push the project into existence.

The bright glare of interest is bad for any complicated real estate project. Now that opposition for the mosque has become a point of political pride among every Republican candidate in New York (much less the rest of the country), a strange dynamic has taken hold: defenders of the first amendment must articulate their support for the mosque, but it’s hard to see any of them funding it. Like any slow-moving real estate story, the facts on the ground become secondary when they are charred by the white heat of a political campaign. For the time being, the question isn’t who is funding the mosque, but more straight-forward politics: who is funding the Republican political campaigns this fall, and which Democratic donors are making their bets based on support for the mosque?