By Barney Blakeney
Contractors last month broke ground on construction for a new library in the East Cooper community. And the construction of four others soon should begin as well. Voters in November approved $108.5 million for the new libraries and renovation to 13 others. Minority business and employment advocates say the activity represents great opportunities. Charleston County Councilman Teddie Pryor has made a personal commitment to insure minority businesses get a fair share of the economic opportunity.
The $108.5 million plan includes construction or renovation of 19 buildings throughout the county. Five new libraries would be constructed – two in areas of rapid growth (the East Cooper/Carolina Park and West Ashley/Bees Ferry Road areas) and three to replace outdated facilities (the Cooper River Memorial Branch in North Charleston and the James Island and St. Paul’s/Hollywood branches). A total of 13 existing libraries will be renovated.
Pryor said $80 million -$90 million has been allocated for the construction. The county is mandating 25-30 percent of contracts be awarded to minority businesses. And he insists many of those awards should be prime contract awards. That’s where the money is, he said. In the past minority contract goals were satisfied by awarding minority businesses subcontracts for painting, putting up drywall or landscaping, he said. On this project county officials are demanding that project managers let prime contracts to minority firms. “If they don’t, we’re going to pull the plug,” Pryor warned.
“We’ve got minority contractors in this community who can do the work. In the past they’ve come to the workshops and bid on the projects, but didn’t get the jobs. We heard excuses from project managers who said they conducted outreach, but that they couldn’t find minority contractors.
Well, we’re tired of those excuses so we’re going to monitor the process. We know how disheartening it is when contractors take time off to attend these workshops and bid, but still don’t get work. This time we’re going to hold people’s feet to the fire. These goals are built into their contracts. If they’re not met, we’re going to stop the work.”
M.B. Kahn Construction, which has the contract to build the five new libraries, already is responding. Last week it held an information session about the new St. Paul and James Island libraries. Pryor said he’s confident the firm will meet the goals set, but he’s also going to employ the maxim ‘trust, but verify’.
Pryor noted that in addition to contract awards, contractors will be mandated to meet minority employee goals as well and to provide on-the-job training for a percentage of employees based on the amount of the contract. He defended the contract stipulations saying, “That’s how jobs and opportunities are created.
“You have not because you ask not,” Pryor quoted. The contract stipulations are a response to negligence made apparent in previous projects such as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge construction which cost about $600 million, but yielded very little economic benefit to minority businesses.
“We have to hold people accountable and you have to keep your eyes open. This same thing needs to happen on the state and federal levels. We have only three Democrats on County Council yet we were able to build these goals into the contract. That happened because we worked across the aisles. Economic opportunity is the measure of progress for minority communities. This is one way to make that progress,”” Pryor said.