Stadium off diversity mark: Some minority, female contractors say they’re being left out

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Black businessman Lorenzo Gibson is optimistic that AFI Manufacturing Group will still get a chance to participate in the construction of the $950 million Lucas Oil Stadium and Indiana Convention Center expansion.

But like Indianapolis Colts reserve quarterback Jim Sorgi, the owner of the Kokomobased metal fabricator has spent most of his time observing from the sidelines.

“To watch a project of this magnitude go right by us is very disappointing,” Gibson said. “It’s very disheartening because you have companies that say they will work with minorities, and we come back with zero.”

Gibson is not alone in his frustration. Advocates for minority and female business owners are hearing similar complaints from their membership.

“I feel that our needs, wants and cries are falling on deaf ears,” said Billie Dragoo, president of the National Association of Women Business Owners’ Indiana chapter. “I’ve heard the cries, and I think it’s time we start talking about it.”

The General Assembly last year passed legislation directing the Indiana Stadium and Convention Building Authority to grant 15 percent of all contracts to minorities and 5 percent to women.

But so far the authority has fallen short. Minority businesses have received 13.1 percent of all contracts and women-owned businesses have garnered 3.7 percent.

Both groups have had even less success vying for construction contracts, the only type put up for bid. Minority businesses have landed 12.6 percent of those, while women-owned businesses have won 3.6 percent.

Through mid-April, the authority awarded construction and professional services contracts totaling $413.4 million, or less than half the total. Work on the convention center won’t begin until the stadium is finished in 2008.

The authority and project leaders face no repercussions if they don’t make the targets in the law. But they say their failure to reach the targets so far doesn’t reflect lack of trying.

Project leaders say other large-scale projects in the city are draining the available work force. And they say it’s proving difficult to locate minority- or female-led companies who can work in specialty areas like scoreboards and retractableroof mechanisms.

“If there are firms in Indiana that want to work with us, we would like to get them involved because we need additional resources,” said John Klipsch, executive director of the stadium authority, in an e-mail.

Calling in help

The stadium authority early this year hired the locally based consulting firm Engaging Solutions LLC to help project manager Hunt Construction Group recruit more minority- and women-owned companies.

Contractors that submit bids with low participation levels are pushed to meet the commitments, Klipsch said. In two instances, he said, the authority delayed awarding contracts until companies boosted their minority and female involvement.

The authority also networks with organizations that specialize in facilitating minority and female participation, such as the Indiana Department of Administration’s Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise Division and the Indiana Business Diversity Council.

But the big obstacle, Klipsch said, is the abundance of competing projects.

They include the $1 billion midfield terminal at Indianapolis International Airport, the $832 million capital improvement program launched by Indianapolis Public Schools, and the $103 million expansion of the Central Library.

The airport and IPS projects don’t include contracting goals. Mayor Bart Peterson insisted on targets for stadium construction as part of negotiations that put the project under state control.

“When we at the city sought to have those written into the agreement, we felt like they were very achievable goals,” said Fred Glass, president of the Capital Improvement Board. “Ultimately, they will achieve them.”

So far, minority participation on the airport project is 13 percent, and female participation is 5 percent. Through the first phase of the IPS project, minority participation is 10 percent and female participation 2 percent.

When Conseco Fieldhouse was built in the late 1990s, CIB required minority participation of 13 percent and female participation of 2 percent. Ultimately, minority involvement topped 20 percent, and female involvement approached 4 percent.

Eager for work

Debra Simmons Wilson, a principal of Engaging Solutions, said upcoming bid packages require less specialization and thus should provide greater opportunity for minority and female involvement.

In May and June, for instance, the authority will seek contractors for stadium seating, drywall and millwork.

Lisa Bohn, owner of the locally based sign company Lisa Bohn & Associates Inc., said she has high hopes her firm will land scoreboard work when the authority turns its attention to that specialty.

The 15-year veteran of the sign industry launched her own company in February 2005. It handles everything from design and installation to service.

“I try to get my information in front of people,” Bohn said. “Other than going around chasing people on site, I don’t know what else to do.”

AFI Manufacturing’s Gibson said he’s been sending his salespeople to bid meetings in hopes of capturing work. He said Hunt executives have been responsive to his concerns, although “there have not been any results.”

Gibson thought he’d landed a role in the project early this year, serving as subcontractor to a larger firm that won a $16 million contract to perform structural precast concrete work.

But Coreslab Structures Inc. ultimately told him it would do the work “in house,” he said. Matt Ballain, general manager of the local Coreslab office, confirmed AFI submitted a bid. Because it wasn’t competitive, Coreslab opted to perform the work itself, at a cheaper rate, he said. Minority and female involvement on the $16 million job totals a mere 1.8 percent, according to the April stadium bid report.

Wanda Williams, who operates the Williams Cylinders & Controls Inc., also feels shut out.

She attended several bid meetings in hopes of forming partnerships with larger contractors that supply filters and industrial supplies, but came up empty.

“I quit going because it was a waste of my time,” Williams said. “Why are we even trying when it’s nothing but a bunch of bologna?”

Reggie Henderson, executive director of the Indiana Business Diversity Council, said he hears similar complaints.

“Of course, there are winners and losers, but a lot of businesses have felt that by the time they got to the table the pie had already been carved out,” he said. “The companies are out there and they have the capacity to do [the work].”

More firms certified

Indeed, the number of minority- and women-owned businesses certified by the state has risen over the past two years from 1,275 in 2004 to 1,563, an 18-percent increase, according to the Indiana Department of Administration.

Representatives of the Indianapolis Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Women Business Owners planned to meet April 27 with Claudia Cummings, deputy commissioner of the DOA. The state agency houses the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises Division, which provides certification for state projects.

“We’re just trying to make sure the playing field is level,” said Turae Dabney, executive director of the black chamber.

The second piece of the stadium project, the demolition of the RCA Dome and expansion of the Indiana Convention Center, offers additional opportunities for contractors.

Mayor Bart Peterson said hitting the participation targets remains in reach.

“I think they understand how important those goals are,” he said. “We thought 15 [percent] and 5 [percent] were very good numbers. They ought to match that, and I trust they will.”

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