When the construction of the Arthur W. Christopher Community Center was brought before Charleston City Council, a few council members voiced their concerns about the need for more participation in the project from minority contractors. Previously, the vote on a major capital improvement project, the Dock Street Theatre, was split along racial lines. However, the City of Charleston, with the help of the city’s Minority Business Enterprise office, vowed to increase the presence of minority-owned firms working on the community center.
The result: African-American participation in the Arthur W. Christopher Community Center was at 15.5 percent, up from 6 percent for the Dock Street Theatre, while the percentage of women-owned firms working on the project were higher for the community center than with the theater, rising from 5 percent to 6 percent. (Women-owned firms also received 8 percent of the work on the Bees Landing Recreation Center.) This is progress. But we have to build on this by working with city government to develop more ways to get minority firms involved.
When asked what accounted for the increase in the number of minority firms working on the project, Theron Snypes, manager of the Minority Business Enterprise office, stated that it was a change in culture. He said, “Once the political will was established by the mayor and City Council staff, and the Capital Projects Division became sensitive to the issue, subsequently so did the majority firms.” And so now, more majority-owned firms are including more minority-owned firms as a part of their bid packages.
Although the City has made improvements to their process, that alone won’t get minority firms where they want to be. The other part of the battle is that minority-owned firms must get the appropriate bonding and training necessary to compete for the project as lead contractors. Snypes agrees. “We have no doubt that we will meet our goal on our next project, the $140 million Gaillard Center, but we want to be proactive,” he says. “We will be offering training to minority contractors, so they can have the tools to compete.” Some of the classes the Minority Business Enterprise office will offer tackle such matters as electronic project scheduling, bidding, project management, and bonding.
While this is a start, there are serious issues faced by minority contractors that must be addressed. In September of last year , the Government Management, Organization, and Procurement Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on minority contracting issues. In written testimony, the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense Fund noted that minority-owned construction firms were not able to meet bonding requirements, which constrained their participation in federal contracting opportunities. The written testimony stated that insurance brokers lack the incentive to serve minority-owned construction firms whose contracting opportunities are generally smaller in size.
The same can be said for minority-owned firms attempting to bid on capital improvement projects developed by local governments. One solution would be to develop a surety bonding fund with a goal of identifying an agreed-to number of dollars in private capital through a public-private partnership. Another solution is contract unbundling, in which government agencies break the project down into smaller parts. There are other solutions to the issues faced by minority contractors, but it is going to take a focused effort by Mayor Joseph P. Riley, City Council, and the city staff to make them happen.
Opportunities exist, but it is important that Charleston’s African-American City Council members remain vigilant on every appropriation. Majority-owned firms know that Mayor Riley and the Charleston City Council are serious about minority firms. They have begun reaching out to these marginalized firms and making them a part of their bid packages. And so I address the members of the community: You must do your part by supporting your council members and encourage them — not just criticize them. When they are slack, hold them accountable, but pat them on the back when progress is being made. Together we can build a self-sustainable and self-determined community.
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