After several weeks of wrangling, bickering and strife, the New Orleans Aviation Board blinked. It will re-issue the RFP on the airport construction contract. We can only assume the two giant conglomerates—Hunt-Gibbs-Boh-Metro and Parsons-Odebrecht, whose battle for the $546 million construction project has unfolded in headlines, will once again make their bids for the lucrative job to build a new terminal and runways at the Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Despite the Aviation Board’s decision to issue a new request for proposals, we don’t see things playing out any differently—no, not all. One of the groups will get the half billion dollar job. One of the groups won’t. One will be excited. The other might call foul and file a complaint. There may be more news reports of alleged racism on the part of one or more of the firms involved. We won’t be surprised if we see more efforts to reveal links between some of the firms bidding on the airport project and their questionable business dealings on projects completely unrelated just to muddy the waters.
To be sure, we can’t help but question the timing of reports about Orleans Parish School Board President Nolan Marshall’s half siblings’ business, Nolmar Construction, essentially being awarded a school board contract as a subcontractor with Woodward Design+Build. So back in May, when Woodward was announced as the winner of the school board contract to build Edna Karr, no one realized that Woodward’s bid was not a good one because the Marshall family firm signed on as a DBE? Wait, no one figured this out when the bid was first submitted? You mean to say this doesn’t make news until June—perfect timing to throw shade on Parsons-Odebrecht local partner in the winning bid for the airport contract.
Let’s make this plain for anyone who thinks The Tribune is okay with what went down with the OPSB contract to build a new Edna Karr. We are not. And we are not devoted admirers of Woodward Design+Build. We don’t know them nor owe them. But if Woodward were not a part of the Parsons-Odebrecht airport bid, exactly when were all of the folks so concerned about the legal ethics of Nolmar being a part of Woodward’s bid to build Edna Karr going to speak up—at the ribbon-cutting ceremony?
It is all par for the course. Hey, it’s a battle for $546 million. We expect it to get nasty. But now that the RFP is being re-issued, can we get some things right? Alright!
How about weighing DBE participation at more than 10 percent of a bid’s evaluation. Let’s require DBE participation that meets or exceeds the program’s goals in order to make the deal.
Speaking of dealmakers, regardless of which of the groups gets the contract, let’s make sure workers at the airport construction site mirror the city’s population: local jobs for local workers and real consequences for the prime contractor that does not follow through. We are tired of driving by construction sites across this city and counting on one hand the number of Blacks we see working or checking out all of the cars and trucks with the Mississippi plates or non-Orleans Parish brake tags in the front windshields, each one representing a worker that will drive back to a suburban hamlet while violence and mayhem—tied directly to the lack of economic opportunity and equity—play out on our city’s streets.
We would do cartwheels here at The Tribune if a Black-owned construction company were awarded the airport project as the prime contractor and did not have to be brought in just to meet the DBE goals—scratching and scraping or running interference for the same White business owners who are the architects and perpetrators of the institutional racism responsible for creating and maintaining an environment in which there is not one Black-owned general construction or design and build firm with the capacity to bid on a major project.
Okay…we’re back from our little fantasy. And the reality is this—after much hoopla, finger-pointing, grandstanding, bullying with threats of lawsuits and well, whining, the process will begin again. In the meantime, more than 50 percent of working age Black men in New Orleans will still be unemployed. After it’s all said and done, there will still not be a single Black-owned construction firm in the city that can bid on a project just one-tenth the size of the airport job as a prime contractor. We’d like to be wrong about this, but we are certain that we’re not.
It’s true that when we got the news that the local favorite Hunt-Gibbs-Boh-Metro had not won the contract, unlike so many of our associates who turned a blind eye to the past egregious transgressions of some members of the team that lost the bid, we refused to drink the Kool-Aid. And God knows it was being served all across the city—by the gallons:
How could some outside firm be better than one with all of these local companies?
And with a woman as part owner, Gibbs Construction is a DBE, too. And they have worked a lot with Baker Ready Mix.
But Metro is a part of this bid. (To be sure, our beef is not with Metro, a business we have long supported. But in this instance, its presence just does not do enough for us to believe that Hunt-Gibbs-Boh-Metro is somehow so deserving of this contract that we should all be up in arms fighting for this ad-hoc group.)
Yep, we heard it all, as did many of you. And none of it is enough to change our minds. We aren’t buying it. While some Black folks, perhaps unwittingly so, were primed—no egged on—to get all riled over Hunt-Gibbs-Boh-Metro not winning the contract, we maintained that the decision to award it to one firm over the other and this most recent decision to scrap the process and start all over have absolutely nothing to do with the wellbeing of the vast majority of Black New Orleanians. That’s what we believed last month; and that’s what we believe today.
Instead of picking sides and getting upset with one another over which giant, White-owned construction firm gets the $547 million deal—and to be sure, one of them will get it—we’d rather have a serious conversation about why not one Black-owned construction business has the capacity to even get off the runway when it comes to bidding on projects of this magnitude as a prime contractor.
Expecting More From Our Friends
Just to remind you, we said we didn’t know much about Parsons-Odebrecht, but figured that as airport builders go they are as good as any. As we recall, their bid promised as much DBE participation as the losing bid. So we were not about to jump on the Hunt-Gibbs-Boh-Metro bandwagon. Hell, they were the local boys…and they didn’t do any better than the so-called outsiders—nor have they ever. So why do they deserve our allegiance?
No, we do not know much about Parsons or Odebrecht or Hunt either for that matter. But what we know about Boh Brothers and Gibbs Construction is enough to convince us that helping to foster and cultivate disadvantaged business enterprises through this or any opportunity is not high on their list of priorities, despite the billions of dollars they have made in the last several years since Katrina. If the past is, in fact, prologue, having those guys building the airport would mean little for Blacks in this city.
Over the last 25 to 30 years, the Louisiana Associated General Contractors, of which Robert Boh is a two-time past president, has led the fight against disadvantaged businesses, filing suits or complaints against the Orleans Parish School Board, the Aviation Board and the Sewerage and Water Board over their DBE programs. For anyone who thinks we are conjuring up past indiscretions of long ago, note that the LAGC was filing complaints with the state attorney general’s office regarding the S&WB’s DBE program as recently as 2011. We are not talking about ancient history. The roadblocks that the LAGC has put in the way of DBE programs, particularly as it relates to the construction industry, have guaranteed that there is not a single Black-owned construction firm with the capacity and ability to bid as a prime contractor on an RFP to build a $50 million school, let alone a $500 plus million airport.
No, we just don’t see a whole lot of work getting funneled down to very many subcontractors with big boys like Boh Brothers in charge of things. And just so we are clear—when it comes to DBEs our concern is those businesses where the overwhelming majority (if not all) of the ownership lies in Black hands. We are tired of businesses fronting as DBEs because a wife’s or daughter’s name is on the paperwork or because the slight majority (51 percent) of the company is owned by a minority who has joined with White partners all too eager to get their hands on contracts and money as DBE participants. These arrangements are disingenuous. They undermine the spirit and weaken the goals of DBE programs.
And now this: recent revelations about racists comments on the part of top employees of Woodward Design+Build (who would have been project managers on the Parsons-Odebrecht bid) against minority contractors on another unrelated job four years ago, is being credited with helping to spur the decision to redo the bid.
Say it isn’t so.
Of course, there is no way we will ever know exactly what went on. And while the details are hazy, we can believe that Woodward Design+Build employees were guilty of racist remarks and treatment. There is, of course, absolutely no excuse for such behavior. We’re just sitting here hoping—no, praying—that folks can see the timing of this revelation for what it was—a play for an emotional, gut reaction as a one-half billion dollar contract is up for grabs. As abhorrent as this behavior is, at the end of the day, those words don’t sign checks or award contracts. Plus, we know Woodward employees don’t have exclusive rights to such behavior and language either. Just wondering how many Black folks at Boh, Gibbs or other construction sites have heard racial epithets or felt discriminated against in the workplace—if they were allowed to get there in the first place.
To top it off, the subcontractor at the center of this complaint settled its contractual grievance against Woodward for a cool half-million, but got nothing on the discrimination suit, according to reports, because it was determined that with one Black owner and two White ones, the business did not qualify as minority owned. Wow—exactly the type of bogus arrangement that has marred and stymied the growth of real minority-owned businesses and of DBE programs in this city.
We are convinced that bringing up this Woodward discrimination case now—however repugnant the behavior on the part of its employees—was clearly designed to divert from the real issue.
Economic Parity: That’s What We Want
For us at The Tribune, that real issue is economic parity. It is 2014, call us what you want. Send your stupid jokes by e-mail. Put a sign in your front yard. Hell, get caught up in a taped telephone conversation like Donald Sterling for all we care. Just make sure that we have the opportunity to participate in the economic growth and progress taking place with the professional regard due any capable and accomplished expert in our given fields. Oh, and make real sure that no matter what undignified, detestable words you might call us out of ignorance or in hate, that you get our names right on the contracts and the checks.
We ended our first editorial on the subject of the airport contract this way:
“We fear that even as the sounds of construction fill the space above ol’ Moisant Field, little will change for most New Orleanians unless and until this $546 million project and others like it result in real economic opportunity for a range of legitimate Black-owned businesses and good-paying jobs for Black workers. Unless and until that happens, jackhammers will pound in Kenner; but the only sound that will fill the air in New Orleans—all through the East and the Ninth Ward, in the Third Ward, Seventh Ward, and Eighth Ward, in Hollygrove and in Gert Town, in Pilotland and in the Algiers Cutoff—is the steady wails of despair.”
Our fears have not changed.