(Trice Edney Wire) – Groundbreaking is supposed to take place in August. So far, however, Virginia State University has yet to ensure the inclusion of Black-owned companies in the construction of its planned convocation center.
At this point, the historically Black university has put a White-owned Virginia Beach company, S.B. Ballard Construction Co., in charge. VSU remains mum about a groundbreaking date, officially stating only that “work is to commence next month.”
According to VSU, Ballard has control of hiring subcontractors because that company won the competition and has been awarded a $53 million contract to construct the combination gym, events and academic center. Ballard beat out four other construction companies, including two that had teamed with black contractors from the Richmond area.
During the competition, Ballard submitted to VSU a long list of potential small, women- and minority-owned subcontractors as examples of companies that it might use. The list included 10 black-owned companies, who, combined, were listed as potential recipients of more than $14 million or 25 percent of the construction work, though Ballard offered no guarantees of hiring them or any other company for the two-year project.
Jane Harris, VSU director of capital outlay, responded, “Yes,” when asked if Black-owned firms would be included, but she has not yet received any reports from Ballard about selected subcontractors. The Free Press contacted all 10 Black-owned companies on the Ballard list and so far has found not one has received even a promise of inclusion. Officials from Ballard have not responded to a Free Press request for comment.
The decision to hire Ballard, meanwhile, is adding strains to the relationship between VSU President Keith T. Miller and his staff and the school’s Board of Visitors. The board was never notified of the competition or the award, which the Miller administration secretly made June 12 — just two days before the board voted on June 14 to amend its bylaws to require all proposed VSU procurement contracts to be submitted to the board for approval.
Board member Terone B. Green of Henrico County is upset that the information about the project was kept from the board. “This is the kind of sizeable outlay that the board needs to know about,” he said. “I don’t understand the secrecy.”
He said he is dismayed that the administration decided to keep the award under wraps even after the board voted to exercise more oversight over spending with its bylaws changes. He only learned about the award during a casual conversation with a state official. As for executives of the black-owned companies that Ballard named, most see it as business as usual to have Ballard put their company name on a list with little practical meaning.
For example, Ballard listed Dwight Snead Landscaping and Paving Co. of Glen Allen as potentially receiving contracts worth about $7 million. Company president Dwight H. Snead Sr. said his company wants to participate in the project, but added the company has not won any contracts so far. He said he submitted preliminary prices to Ballard, but now is waiting for Ballard to provide its revamped designs for pricing.
Snead said he expects Ballard to seek pricing from several companies. “There’s no guarantee,” he said that his company would even be involved. He said it would not be unusual for his company to make a preliminary list and never receive any work.
For example, Snead’s company had been promised the site work on the new Richmond City Jail, but was knocked off that project when the general contractor found another company willing to accept a lower price.
Warren Thomas, president of RMT Construction and Development Group of Chesterfield County, agreed that Ballard’s inclusion of his company’s name on its potential list might not translate into actual work.
“I’ve worked with Ballard before, and they’ve been fair,” Thomas said. Still, he said Ballard has not yet asked him to submit prices for work on the VSU center. Ballard listed his company as a potential recipient of about $1.2 million in contracts for interior wall work, but Thomas said Ballard provided that estimate when it gave VSU its SWAM (small, women and minority-owned) subcontractors.
Ballard also apparently fudged part of its list by putting down names of companies with which it had not had contact, another tactic that is not rare among companies seeking state contracts.
Harold D. Parker, president of Old Dominion Electrical Supply Inc. of Richmond, expressed surprise when a reporter told him Ballard had listed him as a potential supplier of a $1.1 million generator to provide power during outages.
“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” Parker responded. “Normally, a company planning to include us would call us first.” Parker said the only time he has had a conversation with Ballard representatives about the project was at an open house Ballard and VSU held for SWAM companies earlier this week.
Gena Thompson Burr also was unaware her company, GTT Enterprises, was on the Ballard list as a potential supplier of a $185,000 landscaping system. She is working with Ballard on another project, she said, but was not informed that Ballard had put her company’s name on the SWAM list for the VSU project.