by Jeff Sykes

Minority participation rates delay High Point Road streetscape | @jeffreysykes

Members of a planning committee overseeing a rehabilitation of the High Point Road corridor expressed frustration last week to city officials due to continued delays with a streetscape project now set to begin in January.

Beyond the specific delays, due most recently to the state’s rejection of a plan Greensboro officials implemented to increase minority business participation in city construction projects, members of the Central Gateway Corridor Partnership wondered out loud if Greensboro’s city leaders were committed to improving the overall appearance and code enforcement diligence along one of the city’s busiest points of entry.

The city adopted a 144-page plan in 2008 that laid out the goals for the project. At the same time, the Central Gateway Corridor Partnership came into being and was tasked with guiding the process. The city’s voters approved a $7.5 million bond package for Phase I of the streetscape project in 2008. Public education materials developed two years later listed 2013 as the construction start date, which would rehabilitate the stretch of High Point Road from I-40 to the Greensboro Coliseum.

The streetscape plan seeks to improve the visual aesthetic of the corridor, and enhance bicycle and pedestrian mobility while preserving the road’s vehicular capacity.

Typical delays for a project of this size had pushed the contract bid date back to November 2013. Bids were opened in January, with Yates Construction Company being the apparent lowest bidder. But the city had implemented a new minority and women business enterprise program on January 1, which set goals for participation rates of minority firms at 20 percent. Large firms could still win the contract without meeting the participation goals, so long as they showed “good faith” in their effort to find minority owned firms to work with as subcontractors.

A recent city project management document states that the Good Faith Committee determined Yates “did not meet the requirements of the M/WBE plan.” An email sent from Assistant City Manager David Parrish this spring partially spells out the details.

“In summary, Yates Construction failed to solicit all M/WBE firms capable of working on the project, certified by the state, and located in the Greensboro MSA,” Parrish wrote. “This violates the policy by not allowing an equal opportunity to participate in the project.”

From there, the timeline gets even muddier. Parrish stated that the contract was to be re-bid, with an advertisement of June 5, and an anticipated award date “in the next couple of months.” The city’s current listing of projects on its website shows the contract bidding period closed on Oct. 1.

But the second attempt to bid the contract was scuttled by the state Department of Transportation. City officials had attempted to ensure minority participation by requiring winning bidders to use a joint ventures scheme, whereby large firms would partner with smaller, minority-owned firms and create a new corporation specific to the contract. State officials determined they could not use that arrangement, since up to $2.25 million in state money is being used to pay for street resurfacing as part of the larger project.

North Carolina uses a participation model known as Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, which has its own set of rules modeled after the federal program established in 1983. A joint ventures scheme was found to be incompatible with DBE program rules, according to Chris Spencer, Greensboro Department of Transportation’s engineering manager. Spencer gave the partnership members an update on their streetscape project at a meeting in the Greensboro Coliseum annex last week.

“So the whole project at that point had to go through DBE and the state didn’t advise us of that until pretty far into the readvertisement process,” Spencer said. “Hence the delay from the original timeline.”

Spencer told partnership members that the city had re-advertised the contract and would open submitted bids on Oct. 30. With the state backing the bid process, and having ultimate say over minority participation, Spencer said he expects competitive bidding will increase.

“I think there was some confusion with the MWBE guidelines and how we previously put this out as a joint venture,” Spencer said. “There was some confusion. We don’t anticipate that with DBE. It’s a set process.”

If the low bidder has met the state’s DBE requirements, then the bid will go to city council for approval. If not, the state will have to determine if a good-faith effort at minority participation was met.

“You can set goals for participation, you can require that they advertise and give opportunities for DBE, but you can’t require a certain percentage,” Spencer said. “All you can require is that they attempted and that they showed good faith.”

Members of the partnership committee, which includes business owners, neighborhood association members, developers and institutional representa tives from UNC-Greensboro, and others, had several questions about the delays, and the impact of the DBE requirements on the cost of the project.

Spencer said he had anticipated higher bids under the joint venture process.

“You are having these contractors create an entity, I think the uncertainty would have created slightly higher bids,” he said, but added that he doesn’t expect that with the state DBE process. The original $7.5 million bond has inflated to $8.78 million. The entire project is budgeted at $13.6 million. The state could contribute up to $2.25 million for resurfacing costs, with the city’s water resources pouring in another $3.8 from its capital improvement fund.

If this contract makes it through to approval, Spencer said the city is looking for an availability date of Jan. 1, with a 600-day construction timeline. Some underground work could begin before the ACC Tournament hits town in March, with visible construction work moving forward thereafter.

City planners made use of the delay period by finding room to work in street-lighting to the streetscape project. Spencer said the city would look to add LED streetlights. The lights would be maintained by the city and possibly be solar powered. The city’s sustainability coordinator is working with GDOT on the concept, which could lead to reduced maintenance costs. !