By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — A former city councilman and a black businessman met with Mayor Megan Barry recently to discuss what everybody knows but nobody wants to talk about: Metro is not giving minority businesses a fair shake when it comes to awarding contracts.
Nashville passed a Nondiscrimination Procurement Ordinance in 2008 and set up a Business Assistance Office to help minority, women-owned, and small businesses get work with the city. But year after year, the Procurement Nondiscrimination Program (PNP) has fallen short of its benchmark goals.
The program is voluntary and relies on good faith efforts between city department heads, the city Purchasing and Contracts Office, and prime contractors who are awarded contracts worth millions. Prime contractors are to make good faith efforts to subcontract with minority businesses that have the expertise to do some of the city’s contracted work. Some of them do. Some don’t.
Former Councilman Don Majors and Alex Coure, owner of IT Solutions By Design Inc., say the nondiscrimination program isn’t working because prime contractors can game the system when it comes to bringing minority businesses into their big ticket contracts with the city.
“We have been trying to help minority businesses by improving diversity numbers in contracts awarded by Metro Nashville,” says Majors. His group, Citizens 4 A Better Nashville, advocates a more rigorous PNP program, and more minority hiring by Metro’s police and fire departments.
They’ve been successful in doing so. The current police recruit class has 62 trainees. Twelve are African American and eighteen are women. Nashville Fire Department will begin training a new class in March. Fire Chief Ricky White says there will be more African Americans than in previous years.
While Metro’s government is making strides to improve diversity numbers in hiring minorities, its PNP program has not helped black businesses much.
“Everybody is one job away from 8th and Broad (bankruptcy court),” said Roger Ligon, a building contractor who’s black. “Access to government work has kept majority white firms in business,” he said. Ligon estimates that 30 percent of black businesses have been lost in Nashville since 2008.
“That’s why this program is so important to them. If it worked, it would provide them … access to work that they wouldn’t ordinarily have,” Ligon said.
City Hall defends its nondiscrimination program and it points to the Music City Center as a success story of minority involvement. In that huge project worth $125 million to minority, women-owned, and small businesses, city records list seven black-owned firms that were awarded big contracts. But Coure and Majors checked that list. They say only three of the seven are black-owned: Manufacturer’s Industrial Group, Sunago, and Harmony.
Michelle Bethune, the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) coordinator for the Music City Center, compiled the list of some 200 DBE companies working on the project. All of them were certified by agencies like the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council, the Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise, or TDOT, the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Bethune said the errors in her report were either typos or the certifying agencies gave her bad data. “Somebody dropped the ball in making sure those listings were accurate,” Majors told the Tribune.
Technically, the Music City Center is not part of Metro’s PNP program because it has done its own diversity outreach and operates under its own Board of Directors. To minority contractors doing business in Nashville, that’s a distinction without much difference.
Ligon, 70, has done a lot of building under federal contracts at military bases but he also builds low-income housing for non-profits and churches. He told the Tribune he hardly ever bothers to bid on city contracts anymore. He says it’s not worth the effort to compete with other minority builders who drive the bidding too low.
Rather than compete in a game he doesn’t want to play, Ligon relies on his reputation as a good builder. Nowadays, he says he waits for people to come ask him to bid a job. Ligon is black, but his business is successful like the majority of white-owned businesses who win contracts with the city. Ligon isn’t one of them. He’s found another way to be successful, but it’s taken him a long time to get there. He lives in Old Hickory in a house he built 20 years ago.
Alex Coure claims city officials in the contracts office whitewash phony outreach efforts by prime contractors to involve black businesses and that the people who are supposed to be leading the city’s nondiscrimination efforts in awarding contracts don’t reach out to qualified minority businesses when contracts are advertised. Coure is asking the city to compensate him for work he should have gotten but didn’t.
At their Jan. 5 meeting, Coure gave Mayor Barry a Small Business Development Best Practices Report that contains research about U.S. counties and their diversity programs. Seven of the top 10 counties when it comes to successful diversity business development have something Nashville does not have: bonding, financing, and loan guarantee programs.
While small or minority businesses may have the expertise to compete with big companies, they often do not have the capital. Financial assistance programs to not grant minority firms money but rather make loans or guarantees to complete the bidding requirements for big contracts. The loans are contingent on winning a contract and are repaid when the contractor does the work and gets paid for it.
Coure wrote to the mayor after their meeting and suggested Nashville adopt a PNP similar to ones in Dekalb County, Ga. and Mecklenburg County, N.C.
The inaccurate reporting of black business participation in the Music City Center is something Mayor Barry told Coure and Majors she would look into.
“The PNP program paints a picture that indicates a decent use of minority firms in Nashville but that picture is much less bright for African American businesses,” said Majors.
“I felt it was a good meeting. We had a good exchange and I am very hopeful for a positive outcome,” said Coure.