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Payback Time

In an antiseptic meeting room deep in the maze of the George R. Brown Convention Center, no voices were raised, no impassioned speeches burst forth and nobody made any overt threats, but the message from the minority community to the people building Houston's baseball stadium was clear: It's payback time.

With their constituents expressing growing unease over whether minorities are getting a large enough piece of the $229.5 million contract to build the Ballpark at Union Station, Hispanic and African-American members of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority spent the afternoon of March 5 grilling the project's main contractor.

"It's real simple," board member Al Luna told Brown & Root project manager Steve Smith. "Just tell us, 'Here's bid package number one.' Tell us how much it's for, who got the contract, which minority got it, which women-owned business got it.... We're here for specific information, not for generalizing."

Such specific information was not forthcoming that day, although the generalizing certainly was: "We have a long-standing commitment to maximizing minority participation by maximizing opportunity," Smith lamely offered before the tone of the meeting became clear.

Brown & Root, he went on, plans to "get the word out through community newspapers" and, three weeks or so from now, "deploy a web site" containing information on future bid opportunities.

Board members were unimpressed. "The community is now asking many questions about minority participation, and we have no real facts before us right now to say what kind of job you're doing," said the Reverend C.L. Jackson, the African-American pastor of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church.

Minority voters played a key role in passing the referendum to build the stadium. Polls showed the proposition to be in deep trouble; just days before the November 5 vote, stadium supporters struck a deal targeting 30 percent minority participation in the facility's construction and concessions. The stadium then squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote.

The 30 percent target, higher than the city's typical 20 percent goal, was struck between minority leaders and Astros owner Drayton McLane and Enron Chairman Ken Lay, who headed a private group participating in the project.

The sports authority board is not bound by the deal, which in any case sets only a goal, not a minimum requirement. The major subcontracting deals are done on a best-bid process, but Luna says the board can pressure those subcontractors to hire minority companies to handle part of the work.

"They go out to find their own subcontractors ... and they've got flexibility," he said after the meeting.

Luna, a blunt-spoken former state representative, is co-chair of the board's community relations/fan outreach committee. From that innocuous-sounding post, other board members say, he has focused almost exclusively on the issue of minority contractors.

He's come in for some criticism -- already, disgruntled bidders are mumbling that they have to team up not just with minority firms, but with the right, politically connected firms.

Luna says he simply wants to see as much of the project as possible go to minorities. And those minorities should be in Houston, he said; he chided Brown & Root officials for claiming that a women-owned Minnesota firm's $7 million construction contract should be counted toward the 30 percent target.

"That bothers me, claiming that as a minority participant," he said after the meeting. "I think it violates the spirit of our agreement."

He made it clear during the two-hour session that Brown & Root and other contractors will be accountable to him on the issue. He told the company to file reports with his committee and not just with construction committee chairman Billy Burge, whose office, he says, "is a black hole for bid-award information -- it goes in, but it never comes out, and we don't see it."

When Smith noted that a subcontractor had awarded a $1.2 million contract to a minority firm that morning, Luna pressed for details: "We don't know if it's a Hispanic firm or African-American or Asian-American," he grumbled. "I don't know about the rest of the committee, but I think we are extremely interested in that kind of information."

The pressure kept up. The rattled Smith seemed relieved, at one point, to be able to inform the committee that one bid package under discussion (worth about $500,000) had not been awarded yet. If he thought that meant he could put off questions about it, he learned differently:

"How many companies responded to the bid proposal?" Luna asked.
"Four," Smith replied.
"How many of them were minorities?"
"Two."
"What kind of minorities?"

Smith wasn't sure. "Well, okay," said Luna, "it sounds like we got about a 50 percent chance with that one."

While Luna's was the most persistent voice, he wasn't alone. Howard Middleton, the former board member for the Houston Port Authority, warned Brown & Root that its efforts are being closely watched. "The people in the community, they are always asking me about this," he said. "We've got a radio station criticizing us because they drove by the stadium site and didn't recognize any of the companies working. We are really under the real scrutiny of the community on this."

Brown & Root officials promised to provide members with detailed monthly reports on contracts that have been awarded. They could hardly do less after the reception they got.

"When you come to these meetings, bring numbers," Luna told them. "We're not going to sit up here with general comments and proselytize. We're going to roll up our sleeves and go to work."

Both during and after the meeting, board members tried to minimize any rift with Brown & Root.

"Your intentions are good, but what's more important is getting the information out," said Jodie Jiles, a financial-markets executive who also serves on the board of the Greater Houston Partnership. "The system is working, it's just a matter of getting back to us."

Luna insisted that he had not personally heard "any concerns from the community," but said he decided to call the meeting because the pace of construction is beginning to pick up.

"We are trying to develop and refine a process," he said. "I was laying out my expectations and what I hope to see in the future. To be fair to everyone, they are only in the second month of construction. The first month I reviewed the contracts but didn't think it worthwhile to convene the committee. But now February's gone, and we are getting readier to get into some of the heavier stuff, so I thought it was worth meeting.

"We don't want to wait until we get to the end of the road and ask, 'What happened?'


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