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Big venue bidders court firms owned by minorities
[October 15, 2007]

Big venue bidders court firms owned by minorities

(Orlando Sentinel, The (FL) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Oct. 15--As the co-owner of a small construction company with only five employees, Antonio Jackson doesn't have much in common with the large national firms that build arts centers, arenas and stadiums across the nation.

But as Orlando prepares to spend $1.1 billion on a new arts center, Orlando Magic arena and renovated Florida Citrus Bowl, some of the best-known construction companies in America are scrambling behind the scenes to partner with fledgling companies such as Jackson's Praise Construction.

They're doing it because city and county leaders promised that the new venues would help the struggling Parramore community and minority-owned businesses and workers typically left out of mega-construction projects.

"Orlando is growing, and as a new business we wanted to participate in that growth and see if we can get in on some of the opportunities," said Jackson, who is black. He said his west Orlando-based company already has been contacted by one of the national bidders hoping to build the $480 million arena planned for the Parramore neighborhood.

Successful bidders on most venues contracts must agree that 18 percent of the work will go to minority-owned companies and 6 percent will go to businesses owned by women. With some multimillion-dollar contracts already signed and more deals going before the City Council today, bidders have already begun assembling teams of Orlando-area minority partners.

"When you're spending $1 billion, you want as much of that money to stay in the local community as possible," said Kevin Edmonds, an Orlando administrator who helped craft the city's plan for minority participation, known as the blueprint. "What we're trying to do is make sure the playing field is level for the local community."

Still, there are those who worry that nearly all the work will go to companies with no ties to Parramore, a suspicion that has its roots in recent history. The current Magic arena also came with the promise of economic opportunity for Parramore when it was built in 1989. But those opportunities never materialized.

"There's a sense things are going to go the way things have always gone," Tim Adams, a longtime Parramore businessman, said.

Competing for role

Four national companies have been tapped to bid on the construction of the arena. They've each tried to outdo one another when it comes to joining with smaller, local businesses, according to records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel.

Austin-Hardin, a joint venture of Austin Commercial and Hardin Construction Co. that built the Dallas Mavericks' American Airlines Center, has identified seven minority-owned firms and two female-owned ones.

Hunt Construction Group, which built the Arizona Cardinals' stadium, Charlotte Bobcats Arena and Miller Park in Milwaukee, has partnered with four local minority-owned companies.

PCL Construction Services, which built the Staples Center in Los Angeles and KeyArena in Seattle, and Barton Malow Construction Services, whose credits include the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and Camden Yards in Baltimore, would join with Parramore's JCB Construction.

Skanska USA Building, which built the New England Patriots' stadium and several Olympic venues, also would partner with JCB Construction in Parramore.

City officials said that without the blueprint, the national companies would likely partner with other out-of-town companies they've worked with in the past.

Orlando Commissioner Daisy Lynum, a key author of the city's blueprint, says requiring minority participation is only fair and helps make up for past discrimination.

"These major firms became wealthy because of government contracts, and historically these major firms never wanted to hire black people," she said. "So through the years, blacks have had a very hard time getting one little piece of this work."

Many more companies

Local firms are taking notice of the venues' money-making potential. The number of companies seeking city certification as minority- or female-owned in 2007 has more than doubled during the same period in 2006. Interest has been even greater since July, when city and county commissioners voted to approve the venues plan; 64 companies have been certified, compared with 23 during the same period last year.

"Small construction companies in the area . . . see this as an opportunity," said Andrew Davis, president of the Minority/Women Business Enterprise Alliance, a nonprofit business-resource center in Orlando.

Sterling Blake, who is black, is among them. His 20-year-old Kissimmee-based company, which installs landscaping and irrigation, has grown to 75 employees at least in part because of local governments' minority-contracting ordinances.

Blake learned about the venues by attending a "meet and greet" hosted by Hunt Construction Group at Jones High School. It was one of several held by Hunt and other bidders who hope to make contacts with local companies and spark some good will in the community. They've drawn as many as 200 people.

"I introduced myself and let it be known that I hope to get a piece of the pie," Blake said.

The Magic recently announced the hiring of a dozen minority- and female-owned firms -- including several owned by blacks -- to assist the team's architect, HOK Sport, with the design of the arena. Team owners promised 30 percent of the facility's $20 million in design work would go to such firms.

But critics worry that most of that will bypass fledgling companies that most need the work and go to already successful firms that would thrive even without their minority ownership, such as C.T. Hsu + Associates, an award-winning Asian-American-owned firm that's among those tapped for the arena.

"Yes, he's a minority," County Commissioner Tiffany Moore said of Hsu. "But I don't know if that's what the spirit of this was."

Representatives of the Magic and HOK Sport would not disclose estimates of how it will be split among its minority contractors, citing ongoing contract talks.

Skeptical of promises

Lynum said she was disappointed that more of the arena's design work isn't going to black companies. But she said the Magic's overall plan is a good one. She was more skeptical of the promises made by backers of the performing-arts center, who have selected several consultants but few minorities.

But arts-center director Kathy Ramsberger said the project's board would soon announce a slate of minority-owned firms that will help build the center. "We've embraced and accepted the [minority] initiative and are teaming with the city to make sure we achieve it," she said.

Mark Schlueb can be reached at [email protected] or 407-420-5417. David Damron can be reached at 407-420-5311 or [email protected]

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