Without Clear Commitment to DBE Inclusion from the Start, Convention Center Project Should Remain Stalled

The failure of staff at the city’s convention center to require minority business participation in the bid for a master architect to oversee the center’s multi-million-dollar facelift is grinding the bid process to a halt and causing strife among several board members.

In December, the board of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center voted to delay a bid by board president Melvin Rodrigue, backed by general manager, Michael Sawaya, to award a $4 million contract to the Kansas City-based architecture firm Populous.

The convention center is in the midst of a more than $500 million-dollar capital improvement project slated to include an entertainment district, linear park and visitor hotel. Yet, the near selection of Populous last year as the lead architect without clear requirements for inclusion of minority-owned firms has rankled several board members.

As it should. To be sure, the convention center project and any other that involves public money, or tax credits and incentives, must be held accountable for those funds. And a part of that accountability must include ensuring that all of the residents of a community benefit from the massive public dollars being spent on it. In other words, without clear commitments for DBE inclusion from the outset and at every step of the project–no matter how big or small–the convention center expansion can stay stalled, as for as we are concerned at The New Orleans Tribune.

Ryan Berni, a regional public affairs consultant and board member, rallied support for slowing the move to award the contract to Populous over the wishes of Rodrigue and others who argued that time remains to include minority firms at a later date.

“On its face, that sounds good,” said Steven Kennedy, a New Orleans-based real estate investor and member of The Collaborative, a group of business and civic leaders pushing for increased minority business participation in the public bid process. “But in reality, there is no mandate that firms on the back end include minority firms.”

 The debate over the inclusion of minority-owned businesses, more commonly referred to as disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) is a decades-long one and has resulted in public bodies such as the convention center committing to a 30 percent participation rate for DBE-certified firms.

Still, this voluntary commitment is largely predicated on the “good faith” efforts of prime contractors in the bid process who “often drop minority firms from the project” after being awarded a contract, said Kennedy.

“One way to demonstrate a commitment to minority business inclusion is through professional services,” said Kennedy, citing provisions in state law that allow public bodies to explicitly state a preference for women- and minority-owned businesses versus navigating the often racially fraught public bid process for other projects.

Still, Kennedy said, “they are not even doing that,” referring to agencies such as the exhibition hall authority, which oversees management of the city’s convention center.

Board member Dottie Belleto, who runs an event planning firm that counts the annual Bayou Classic among its clients, described the process of not having a DBE requirement tied to the contract as “broken”, citing the board’s previous commitment to meeting DBE requirements closer to those adopted by various city agencies for years.

Yet the lack of commitment to DBEs is part of the culture of Louisiana, according to one observer.

“My frustration is that the state doesn’t even enforce its own provisions,” said Lonnie Hewitt, president of Hewitt-Washington & Associates, an architecture firm that has done work for the convention center in the past. “The state has a selection board for architects, which is supposed to focus on bringing in minority talent and yet there is no mandate there.” Hewitt said there is an unspoken rule in the construction industry that Black firms “are limited to doing work for Southern University.”

Rodrigue did not offer any indication as to why Populous was not required to submit a proposal that included local or minority firms, stating only, to his fellow board members, that the $4 million dollar contract is a fraction of the overall budget to revamp the Morial center, which would leave room for minority participation in the future.

In addition, Sawaya, the center’s general manager, cited his work with the firm in San Antonio when he was head of that city’s convention apparatus and vouched for them.

But not requiring DBE participation upfront “sets a bad precedent,” Kennedy said, regardless of a firm’s previous record on including minority-owned firms on other projects.

And Kennedy is spot on. DBE inclusion must be clear at the outset, otherwise it sets a tone that makes it easier to award another piece of the puzzle without it, then another, then another. Before you know it, the $557 million dollar puzzle is all put together and not one Black-owned firmed has earned one thin dime.

Moreover, Gov. John Bel Edwards has publicly expressed his commitment to buttressing minority businesses, something that Kennedy, who attended the December board meeting, used to help slow the approval of the Populous contract during the period for public comments.

“I simply reminded them of the governor’s commitment to include DBEs in the bid process,” citing an ongoing need to “watch” the city’s public entities.

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