A lawsuit makes a strong case that J.E. Dunn Construction Company rebuilt downtown with little help from minority businesses 

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Perez added: "These guys knew before the first shovel was turned how this was going to do down."

Torres and Perez found it easy to criticize J.E. Dunn. Criticizing Rodriguez presented more difficulty. Asked to vouch for him, Perez called him "a qualified electrician."

A reporter suggested to Perez and Torres that Rodriguez had collaborated.

But Torres wasn't going to go there.

"Who's got the power?" he asked.


A worker wearing a hooded sweatshirt under his hard hat pinches snuff from a plastic tin. He puts the tobacco in his mouth, tosses the empty container over his shoulder and reaches for a socket wrench.

It's a partly cloudy afternoon in late February. The worker is among a group of men preparing the machinery arm of a tower crane, a massive apparatus that will assist with the construction of the West Edge, an office, hotel and retail development just west of the Country Club Plaza.

J.E. Dunn walked off the job last fall. Big Blue said the development company, which is led by advertising executive Bob Bernstein, asked for changes that inflated the project's costs. (An arbitrator ruled last month that both parties abandoned the construction agreement.)

The West Edge, like most significant developments in Kansas City, benefits from tax-increment financing, and TIF money means meeting diversity goals.

At around the time that Dunn and Bernstein parted ways, the city told the TIF Commission's subcommittee on affirmative action that the West Edge had not tried hard enough to hire minority subs. At the time, minority-owned businesses had performed 6 percent of the construction work — well short of the goal of 15 percent.

The city nullified all but only $838 of a $1 million contract attributed to ABS Concrete Pumping. The city determined that ABS, a minority-owned business, had not actually performed the work.

ABS Concrete also had a contract to work on the Block headquarters. The Hispanic contractors allege that ABS Concrete functioned as a front on that project, though the city determined that "nothing improper" occurred in the execution of the contract. (Arthur Still, the company's owner, did not return phone calls.)

What looks like clear fraud to the Hispanic contractors may not seem as obvious to city officials. At the same time, there's little doubt that the H&R Block controversy has caused the Human Relations Department and the TIF Commission to adopt a tougher stance with developers and their general contractors.

Earlier this month, Bernstein and representatives from Walton Construction, Dunn's replacement, met with the subcommittee on the 17th floor of Town Pavilion, headquarters of the Economic Development Corporation, the city-funded agency that administers TIF.

Seated at a conference table, Bernstein seemed genuinely embarrassed. "This is one that took me back," he said. Bernstein acknowledged that minority businesses had not been well-served, and for this he apologized.

Minority hiring isn't Bernstein's only problem. The West Edge is going to miss its projected opening date by a year and a half. Final budget: unknown. "We're finding ourselves really behind the eight ball as far as costs," Bernstein said.

Steve Julo, a project executive at Walton, then explained that Walton had invited 60 disadvantaged businesses to bid on the remaining work at the West Edge.

Walton made an effort to distribute work that J.E. Dunn had planned to complete with its own crews. Walton's construction managers broke the scopes of work into smaller pieces — a traditional method of expanding opportunities for small suppliers. Julo reported that, in all, Walton had awarded more than $10 million in contracts to minorities and women.

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