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Firm passed over for Ball State planetarium cries foul

July 13, 2013

Bowen Technovation installs sophisticated audio-visual systems around the world, but the Indianapolis firm won’t be working on Ball State University’s new $4.6 million planetarium.

Viewpoint Jeff Bowen mug Bowen

President Jeff Bowen says the university unfairly favored his Florida-based competitor, but Ball State maintains there was nothing wrong with its process for awarding the nearly $2 million contract.

The university boasts that its 140-seat facility under a 52-foot dome will be one of the top 10 university planetariums in the country. It’s currently under design, and construction bids will be awarded this fall.

Bowen alleges the equipment-purchasing process was “rigged” because Ball State expressed a preference for equipment available only through the winning bidder, Ash Enterprises. He also believes the university’s outside evaluator misrepresented his company’s experience and capabilities.

Bowen designs and installs audio-visual systems for all kinds of settings, from museum exhibits to the Indiana Convention Center. The firm also does planetarium work.

“We’ve done eight other ones in Indiana,” Bowen said. “It was a little bit of a slap in the face Ball State didn’t have us do theirs.”

Bowen recently took his complaint to the State Board of Accounts, which may review the planetarium deal in its next audit of the university. Bowen said he’s disappointed there’s no state agency that can intervene in the process now.

“It was definitely slanted towards Ash,” he said. “The whole thing, it’s just rigged.” Bowen said he was also advised that he could file a lawsuit, but he’s not seriously considering that option.

“It is understandable when non-winning bidders raise objections,” Tony Proudfoot, associate vice president for marketing and communications at Ball State, said in an email. “However, our processes are driven by the best interests of our students, the university and the state, not those of vendors.”

The world of planetarium work is very small.

Bowen said he’s known the principals at Ash for 30 years. He’s also familiar with the evaluator Ball State brought in to provide advice on its planetarium purchases. After getting passed over this spring, Bowen sent an email to Leisa Julian, associate vice president for business and auxiliary services, scolding Ball State for using Dave Weinrich, past president of the International Planetarium Society, because of his lack of experience with large-scale installations.

“I don’t see how your team thought him qualified to advise on a large-scale 52-foot diameter dome hoping to install the latest technologies,” Bowen said.

Modern planetariums combine mechanical star projectors with digital video systems, creating a realistic night sky, explained Eric Melenbrink, vice president at Ash Enterprises. He said they also boast the ability to zoom in on features, such as the rings of Jupiter, in an Imax-theater fashion.

Ball State is somewhat unique in building a new planetarium from the ground up, Melenbrink said. “A lot of projects are older planetariums being renovated.”

Ash has installed multiple “hybrid” systems, but Ball State will be the firm’s largest job so far, according to the university’s bid evaluation.

Bowen insists Ball State’s planetarium wasn’t an especially large business opportunity.

“I’m more irritated by, first of all, we’re right here, and we could’ve done a much better job than two guys working out of their house in Florida,” he said.

Melenbrink countered: “Yet we have full-fledged shop facilities he doesn’t care to bring up.”

Bowen is the larger firm, but Melenbrink said Ash, which has been in business 40 years, is a planetarium specialist.

“We know them inside and out,” he said.

Bowen believes Ball State showed its preference for Ash, which has serviced its current planetarium equipment for years, last summer by issuing a press release saying the new planetarium would feature a GOTO Chronos II Hybrid star projector.

When the request for proposals went out last fall, Bowen contacted RSA Cosmos, the French maker of a hybrid planetarium system that uses the apparently preferred GOTO model. He was told Ash was RSA’s exclusive U.S. supplier.

Bowen said Ash quoted him $1.8 million for the system, which was the total amount of Ash’s bid.

Ash had the second-lowest of five bids, which ranged from $1.5 million to $2 million, and the top overall score.

Bowen, which bid $1.95 million, the second-highest price, was given the second-lowest overall score. The bids were scored by an internal evaluation committee made up of a scientist, an engineer and an architect, Proudfoot said, as well as by an independent outside expert, Weinrich.

Bowen complains that Ash started with an unfair price advantage, but Ash and Ball State disagree, saying bidders had multiple options for equipment.

Ball State’s RFP didn’t specify a manufacturer.

“The specifications for the project were written in such a manner to ensure multiple manufacturers could bid on the project, and in fact there were other manufacturers who met the specifications who bid on the project,” Julian told Bowen via email in June.

Proudfoot added in an email to IBJ that it’s not uncommon for companies to have limited distribution and service arrangements.

“We cannot possibly know every instance of limited or selective markets for products, and even if we could, it would be infeasible for us to suppress such common activities in our procurement,” he said.

Bruce Hartman, state examiner at the State Board of Accounts, said the agency might look at bidding procedures in its next audit of Ball State, which is coming up soon.•

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