When Earl R. Mitchell's electrical firm finishes wiring the Washington Design Center, he hopes it will help his five-year-old company garner a larger share of the District's booming downtown construction market.
"This is the first time that a minority [owned] electrical contractor has gotten into such a large area of office-building construction in the Washington area that I know of," said Mitchell, president of M&T Electrical Contractors Inc. in Landover.
And Mitchell, like other minority contractors, wants a bigger share. More than half-a-billion-dollars worth of office buildings are to open over the next three year's in the District's downtown area, but interviews with minority and general contractors indicate that minority firms only can expect a small piece of that work.
While noting "it's easy to say you never get enough," Mitchell said for "minority contractors as a whole, no they don't get enough. We don't." Mitchell's boss on the Design Center, general contractor Turner Construction Co., agrees. "Some minority firms have benefited from the building boom. But not enough, and that's wrong," said J.A. Turner III, vice president and general manager of the firm's Washington office.
Minority and general contractors attribute the minorities' low participation to the smallness of most firms and their inability to get the bonding and capital required for office building subcontracts--problems traditionally faced by any small contractor. Some minority firms also lack managerial experience to handle such work, they said.
Thomas E. Brown, vice president of the Minority Contractors Assistance Project Inc., said minority firms usually find themselves in a Catch-22 situation: Without a work track record, it's difficult for them to get the bonding and capital. Without the bonding and capital, it's hard for them to win contracts to build that track record. Brown also estimated that 8 to 10 percent of the contracting firms in the Washington area are minority contractors.
Some minority contractors also blame general contractors for their low participation in the building boom. They said the firms tend to rehire the same subcontractors rather than newcomers, including minorities. They said their office-building work would be less or nil if the District and federal governments in Pennsylvania Development Corp. didn't require certain levels of minority participation on government-connected projects.
Government-set goals give minority a break in winning subcontracts for Metro rail and the District's urban-renewal projects. A Metro spokesman said minority firms received 13.45 percent of the more than $142 million in construction contracts awarded from July 1980 to June 1981. The Redevelopment Land Agency "tries to shoot for 25 percent across the board"--from equity partners to subcontracts--for urban renewal, a spokeswoman said.
Dewey Thomas, executive director of the National Association of Minority Contractors, said the government goals have allowed minorities to win work on privately funded projects by giving them a chance to prove themselves.
"This shows developers, especially those coming into town to do large projects, that there are qualified contractors here," he said. "My association has held meetings to introduce our members to developers coming in so that when they start looking around for partners in the development and contractors to do the work they'll include minorities."
At the Washington Design Center, a furniture market owned by the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, minority firms must get at least 30 percent of the $16.5 million construction costs under an agreement between the District's redevelopment land agency and the Merchandise Mart.
Work on the center, at Fourth and D streets SW, involves the renovation of a 260,000-square-foot former meat warehouse and the construction of a 160,000-square-foot addition. The structure is expected to be completed in a year or so.
To meet the 30 percent quota, which already has been surpassed, Turner said his company took the unusual step of requiring bids for major parts of the Center's work from joint ventures in which a minority firm was controlling partner. He noted that of the $8 million in contracts awarded so far, $5.8 million has gone to the minority firms or ventures.
"By themselves, most minority subcontractors could not qualify from the experience, bonding or operating capital point of view to take on a project of this size," said Turner whose firm gives high marks for minorities for its fairness in dealing with them. But by joining with another subcontractor, the minority firm gets "the opportunity to do the work and participate in the experience and the profits."
Mitchell teamed with a former 1966 electrician-apprentice school classmate, Vincent "Cap" Mona, president of Mona Electric Inc. in Clinton, to win the Design Center's $900,000 contract. Both had bid for parts of the work but joined forces at Turner's suggestion.
Mitchell, one of two blacks first admitted to the apprentice school, said he looks for the Design Center job to attract more subcontracts from Turner and other general contractors with office-building projects. He said his firm's 1981 sales hit $1.5 million with about 30 percent of the work due to office buildings.
For Mona, the partnership also has its benefits. Mona said although his 16-year-old company could handle the Design Center work by itself, he had tried for more than a year to win a Turner contract, and now has the chance to prove his firm's performance. He estimated his firm will gross $18 million this year.
Mona has no objections to government quotas for minorities, although they help his competitors. "I think it's an outstanding idea to help minority firms," he said. "I wish someone did that to help me way back when I was starting out."
But he said the help should be temporary. "As long as it's not handed to them, as long as they work for it, I think it's a good idea," Mona said. "It's like getting a little booster start in the morning for your car. It's just to help you get started, but you can't expect to continue getting the charge."
Although forced to hire minority subcontractors on the Design Center, Turner said his company--the nation's largest general contractor--would have hired minorities on the project regardless. "We hire minorities on private projects because they do good work. We do feel some social responsibility for this," he said.
Last year, Turner's Washington office hired minority firms to do $5.6 million of the less than $100 million work the firm did in the area, he said.
The area's largest general contractor, the George Hyman Contruction Co. in Bethesda is as aggressive in seeking minorities for private projects as for government ones, with a goal of about 20 percent, said Fred L. Valentine, the firm's director of equal opportunity.
But he said the practice is not universal among general contractors. "I think that over all you'll find more participation on federal or required projects than on private or nonrequired projects," he said.
For the first half of 1981, Hyman did $74 million worth of work with subcontractors and of that $1.5 million went to minority firms, Valentine said.
Valentine, who is black, can understand the problems faced by minority firms. He spent 14 years as a professional baseball outfielder--five of them with the former Washington Senators--before joining Hyman in 1971, and he said he also experienced discrimination. Blacks could not succeed in baseball if they were merely equal to white players; they had to be better, he said.
While minority subcontractors wouldn't say if they still encounter discrimination they said being a minority does trigger some second thoughts among general contractors and bonding companies. "General contractors have apprehensions about young contractors in general, and a young minority firm makes them scratch their heads even more," Mitchell said.
When a minority starts a construction company, "automatically your put off into a corner as a minority. You have to prove that you're above that, that you can do the work, then you will have no further problems," said Angel Roubin, president of Roubin & Janeiro Inc., a Fairfax County-based stonework, concrete and paving firm.
Roubin and other minority contractors said the government quotas have proven invaluable for minority firms trying to break into the lush office-building market. "The only place where we have a market is where the government requires it," said Peter Taylor, president of Meridian Electric Corp. in Hyattsville. "If it wasn't for that, you could kiss it goodbye."
Taylor, in business since 1966 and expecting more than $2 million in sales this year, is finishing a $1 million contract on the District convention center. The city has set a goal of hiring minorities for 51 percent of the $67 million contruction work. A General Services Department spokesman said that the city is a percentage point short of the goal, with $7 million in contracts still to be awarded.
One company boosted by the government's quotas has become one of the District's largest and most successful minority construction firms, Tyroc Construction Corp. "If we had not had in our early years encouragement and opportunities created by these programs, our development surely would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible," said Roger Blunt, president of the 10-year-old firm.
Now a minor part of Tyroc's business--projected to be about $12 million this year--is due to the government, with most contracts won through competitive bidding, he said. Tyroc has a $530,000 masonry contract on the Washington Design Center.
The government quotas, however, are unpopular among general contractors, Roubin said. "Let's fact it," he said, "most general contractors don't like the participation requirements for minorities. They think it's a nuisance. They could care less for minorities. They find minorities for government projects only because they're told to by the government."
Some contractors have mistreated minority firms on such projects, he said, recalling his deal with the Hyman Co. Roubin said that before Hyman bid for a military project, Hyman told him he could do the stone work. He said he spent several thousand dollars preparing his price for the job, "but after they [Hyman] were awarded the contract, they told me they were going to do their own stone work. You call that helping a minority contractor?"
Hyman President A. James Clark disputes Roubin's statement. He said Hyman historically has done his own stone work, but for the military project he suggested that Roubin try for the subcontract by beating Hyman's costs. Roubin couldn't and didn't get the job, Clark said.
He added that Roubin was the lowest bidder for paving work, withdrew his offer after Hyman won the military contract. "He left me holding the bag," and Hyman had to hire another paving firm at a higher cost, Clark said.
A spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, Brian Deery, acknowledged his group's members "were not too happy about the minority participation laws." He said general contractors believed the requirements sometimes are unfair and toughen the competitive bidding nature of the construction industry.