Mark Ernst looked out upon a grateful ballroom. It was December 18, 2003. Then the chief executive of H&R Block, Ernst was holding a news conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to announce that his company was moving downtown.
Spurning offers to move to Johnson County, Ernst delighted Missouri politicians (then Gov. Bob Holden attended the festivities) and downtown business interests. Keeping a Fortune 500 company in Kansas City, however, came at a steep price.
Ernst insisted that excitement should surround Block's new headquarters. So city officials agreed to finance the construction of an entertainment district. The Power & Light District has replaced blight on the south edge of downtown, as was intended, but the developer-friendly agreement has strained the city budget.
H&R Block paid virtually nothing for its oval-shaped headquarters. The city's Tax-Increment Financing Commission agreed to cover 95 percent of the $308 million cost to buy the land and put up the 17-story tower.
To build its new palace, Block hired the J.E. Dunn Construction Company. Hiring Dunn is a little like rooting for the New York Yankees. Founded in 1924, Dunn is Kansas City's largest general contractor; on construction sites, the company's blue signs dominate the competition. At present, Big Blue, as the company is known, is building the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a new headquarters for itself near City Hall, and an ice arena in Independence.
Company founder John Ernest Dunn played semiprofessional baseball — he pitched in the Pacific Coast League — before becoming a residential contractor. When he died in 1964, an obituary noted the time and money he had given to Catholic causes, as well as the marks that Dunn Construction had left on the city, including the Wayne Miner housing project and the Kansas City, Missouri, police headquarters.
Upon his death, one of Dunn's four children, William H. Dunn, assumed control of the company. Dunn Construction flourished under second-generation leadership. The company built Shawnee Mission Medical Center, Penn Valley Community College, Corporate Woods and Kemper Arena (the roof of which collapsed during a severe storm in 1979).
Dunn Construction did not like to lose high-profile projects. In 1983, fuming at the way the city had awarded the contract to build Barney Allis Plaza, Bill Dunn sent a letter to Mayor Richard Berkley suggesting that the days of Tom Pendergast had returned. Not impressed with Dunn's historical reference, a city councilman, Bobby Hernandez, complained about a lack of minority subcontractors working for Dunn on the Vista International Hotel (now a Marriott).
Questions about minority participation persisted with the construction of the Town Pavilion skyscraper. The project received government assistance, enabling the city to set a goal that 15 percent of the subcontracts go to minority firms. When, in 1986, it appeared that Dunn Construction would not reach the target, the chairman of the Minority Contractors Association of Greater Kansas City, Elbert Harris, publicly faulted the company. Minority contractors also complained that one of the largest affirmative-action contracts went to a company which was based in Virginia and run by a Spaniard.
The criticism wounded Bill Dunn. He ended his role as an adviser to Harris' minority contractors group. A few weeks later, after Berkley and others had asked him to reconsider, Dunn withdrew his resignation.
Ultimately, Town Pavilion achieved only 7 percent minority participation. The city applauded Dunn for making an effort to divide bid packages into small pieces, giving more minority firms a chance to participate. At the same time, the city's Human Relations Department isolated three minority contractors who had served as fronts for white businesses.
In one instance, a minority-owned plumbing company supposedly installed $700,000 worth of fixtures. The city determined that the business had no warehouse space. Dunn officials said they had no knowledge of the falsely reported participation.