One Stop Capital Flop 

You'd think the loss of six million dollars would teach Oakland to stop making ill-advised business loans. You'd think.

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City auditor Roland Smith shakes his head in disgust at all of these numbers. His office reviews most loan applications before they're sent off to the city council. He is asked to offer his expert opinion: Will the business fail or will it thrive? Will it deliver the number of jobs the city claims it will? It's sometimes a tough call for the independently elected auditor, who concedes that the city needs to pump money into its downtrodden neighborhoods to get things rolling. At the same time, Smith is mindful that Oakland can't afford to fund unrealistic business plans.

All too often, he says, the sales projections prepared by analysts for the city lending program -- now called the "One Stop Capital Shop" -- are guided by wide-eyed enthusiasm rather than pragmatism. At council meetings Smith comes off as a curmudgeonly uncle who focuses on the numbers, politics be damned. But politics play big downtown, and Smith's advice is often ignored. "They've become advocates for the borrowers, not the lender," he complains of the analysts. "And that's a problem."

Oakland's failure to exercise due diligence in issuing loans has created a problem not just for the taxpayers whose money is being squandered, but for loan recipients as well. Brooks-Hamilton's experience, which ultimately led to a grand jury investigation of the One Stop Capital Shop's practices, has made him a dubious poster boy for what happens when good intentions outweigh common sense -- when the city advocates too strongly for a borrower and that borrower goes bust.

Between 1995 and 1998, the city council approved three loans to Brooks-Hamilton totaling more than $460,000. All of that money is gone. With interest, the figure now exceeds $650,000, and while the former businessman has managed to pay back a few grand, the city attorney's office has already moved in on his assets; foreclosure of his home could happen at any time.

This has been a tragic turn of events for Brooks-Hamilton, who still considers himself a business talent. The reason his product failed to catch on, he says, was that the city didn't give him enough money, and the money it did loan him came too little too late. He says he never got a solid chance to help himself, or, for that matter, the neighborhood. "I was set up for failure, man," he repeats, furrowing his brow. "I was set up for failure."

The U-Wheel-It was the brainchild of Joseph Edmonds, an inventor from Los Angeles who probably never imagined his product would be chosen to ignite Oakland's urban renewal. Edmonds met Brooks-Hamilton in Oakland in the summer of 1993, when the two belonged to a group that helped African-American inventors through the maze of paperwork required to secure patents and trademarks.

Edmonds had been unloading his car at a Southern California beach one day, the story goes, when he realized he couldn't carry all his equipment from the car to the beach without repeated trips. A light bulb flicked on somewhere: the U-Wheel-It.

Brooks-Hamilton fell in love with his new friend's idea. They discussed the invention, and at first it seemed like a great meeting of minds. Both were middle-aged men with a wife and kids. Both were looking to make the big score of their lives. And they both wanted to move fast.

Brooks-Hamilton was himself an inventor, responsible for some of the types of gadgets advertised on late night TV for $19.99. He's responsible for the Face Saver, a handheld plastic mask women can use to cover their faces while applying hairspray, or, as Brooks-Hamilton likes to demonstrate, for peeking into a hot oven: "She don't want her face to get hot," he says. He also created the Pill-Verizer, a device that crushes large pills for elderly folks, "so they can put it in their drink and drink it down without choking on it." Then there was the Fisherman Notifier, which clips onto a fishing pole and activates at a nibble: "You got one, you got one," a robot-voice says. "Fish on line. Fish on line."

But none of his inventions brought in much dough, certainly not enough to retire on. And none, in Brooks-Hamilton's mind, were such a surefire seller as the U-Wheel-It. As the two men talked, Brooks-Hamilton imagined even greater possibilities: The U-Wheel-It Office Cart for moving computers and delivering mail in offices. The U-Wheel-It Post Office Cart, for mail carriers -- and just think of the size of that contract if every carrier in the nation used one! There was the U-Wheel-It Senior Grocery Cart, for lugging groceries from the market, and the U-Wheel-It Laundry Cart for students, bachelors, mothers -- everyone. The grandest model would be the U-Wheel-It Beach Cart, complete with an attachable barbecue grill and patio umbrella. All of the carts, the men decided, would be lightweight and collapsible. "We wanted to create something that would make people's lives easier," Brooks-Hamilton says.

Of the duo, it was Brooks-Hamilton who had the know-how and the silver tongue to get a business rolling. He received his bachelor's degree from Berkeley, he says, and a master's from Cal State Hayward. Over the years, he made a living in various ways, including buying fixer-upper homes and selling them, but now he aimed to own his own company, live out his destiny, and set up his family for life. He and his wife, Verna, owned four houses in the East Bay in the early '90s, when local real estate was still affordable. By 1994, they'd sold all but the one they lived in, and dumped the resulting $500,000 into the U-Wheel-It dream. The men were so sure of the spoils to come, says Brooks-Hamilton, that after starting Three J's & B.H. Enterprises they spent many evenings driving through the hills of Oakland, scouting for their future homes.

By late 1994, Brooks-Hamilton had his prototype, but getting a bank loan was proving difficult. He only had the North Oakland residence for collateral now, and Edmonds' family lived in an apartment in Florence, California. But the rejections didn't dampen the pair's determination, and when Brooks-Hamilton learned of the city's new lending program, he was among the first to apply.

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