Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Asheville hires whitebread firm from Denver to conduct minority business study

“Racial disparity” analysis will cost city $320,000

By Roger McCredie

Managing Editor

Meet the BBC Research & Consulting Group
The City of Asheville has engaged BBC Research and Consulting, of Denver, CO, to evaluate city contracting practices with regard to minority-owned businesses.

BBC will begin work next month on a “disparity study” designed to show how well the city succeeds – or doesn’t – in awarding contracts to minority- and female-owned businesses. The project is expected to take a year and will cost the city $320,000. At the end of the day, the study is expected to provide city officials with a blueprint for implementing a race-based system for awarding city work contracts.

The project has been triggered by a perceived need to overhaul the city’s existing Minority Business Program as work advances on the ambitious River Arts District development plan. Concern has arisen in some quarters that black contractors, in particular, might not get a fair shot at bidding on riverfront projects, given what some have said is an abysmal track record in employing black companies.

The Hiring of “The Young Caucasians”

Yet, to evaluate its minority business hiring practices, the city has engaged a firm headquartered 1,300 miles away in a city that is 80% white; one that, judging from its own profile, is young, hip … and lily white.

“They [the BBC team] look like that real old ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit, with the white kids in their little matching sweaters trying to sing Ray Charles, one black business owner who asked for anonymity said. “What a hoot.”

(That sketch involved white SNL cast members as an early 1960’s folk group called “The Young Caucasians” singing an over-enunciated version of “What’d I say.”)

“Lost in Mumbai”

Of passing interest in BBC’s staff bios are the listed hobbies, talents, and aspirations of each member, which, taken together, seem positively Ashevillian. Among them:

Director Molly Fitzpatrick’s off-time activities include efforts “to re-organize her pantry and administer ineffective toddler punishments. She spends evenings eating hot dogs and watching Netflix with a dry-witted husband.”

Data visualist Leah Blunschli’s hidden talent is “drawing elephants,” while Project Assistant Helene Luna’s is that “she can juggle and eat fire.”

One of Data visualist Courtney Cox’s “life defining moments” was “getting lost in Mumbai.”

Research associate Rory Flynn “intends to fix the firm’s long-broken espresso machine.”

Associate Monica Strachan enjoys working “with very smart people that are fun to be around.”

Managing Director Adam Orens is in charge of “Real Estate & Public Finance [and] Cannabis Economics and Regulation” operations. (Pot is legal in Colorado.)

These are members of the group that will spend a year compiling data, organizing community meetings and interviewing focus groups in an effort to disclose why less than 3% of the city’s development dollars are spent with minority operated businesses.

Why now? 

Late last year, as the city prepared to start letting bids for work on the Riverfront Arts District Transportation Improvement Plan (RADTIP), black community advocates, in particular contractor and city council candidate Dee Williams, voiced concerns that if the usual pattern were followed, black business owners would see precious little of the millions of dollars’ worth of work that will be up for grabs. In 2015, Williams pointed out, the city awarded some $$66 million in contracts, of which less than $1.8 million went to black, Hispanic, Native American and non-minority female vendors.

Strictly construction contracts were even more starkly skewed:. A total of $251,790 was bestowed among Hispanic and Native American-owned companies and $337,580 to businesses owned by white females. A total of $260 (that’s two hundred and sixty dollars) went to black companies.

Whether it was that figure itself or the making public of it that hit a nerve at city hall, the result was an almost immediate assertion that the city, indeed, needed to Do Something. In true Asheville fashion, the immediate response was to call in a consultant; after all, there had been no evaluation of the city’s Minority Business program since soon after its inception in the early 1990’s.

So in December the city issued requests for proposals for a “Minority Business Program Disparity Study,” along the following lines:

Study of the City’s contractual awards in construction, goods, services, architectural and engineering services for the period Fiscal Year 2011 through Fiscal Year 2016.

∙ To determine the effectiveness of the current programs and recommend modifications and adjustments, if necessary, to the City program that are in compliance with law based on the opinion of an attorney licensed in the State of North Carolina who has substantial experience in this area of law.

∙ To provide current legal guidance not only relative to new legislation, policies and procedures to meet any constitutional mandates, but also the programmatic needs of the constituencies of the City. In response to the advertisement, the department received six (6) consultant proposals
[Source: City Council minutes March 28, 2017]

The city is hoping such a study “will result in an updated Minority & Women Business Plan that is up to date with all current legal requirements and best practices.”

Six companies responded to the city’s RFP, with cost quotes ranging from $151,200 to $455,825. The city chose BBC, whose bid was $319,948.

But wait … why not use our own resources? And why do it at all?

It’s not as though Asheville/Buncombe County doesn’t have its own resources for diversity research.

Finding answers to the questions the city says need answering would seem to be right down the alley, for instance, of UNCA’s Center for Diversity Education. Its Undergraduate Research Program specializes in faculty-mentored undergraduate fact-finding tasks, many on behalf of third parties.

For that matter, why go through this exercise at all? Comments from many minority residents, on hearing the study had been ordered, indicate they don’t buy the need for it; in fact, they say that if the city wants to spend some money, they can think of far better places to spend it.

In a post she titled “City Racial Disparity Program Plan Raises Questions,” Asheville blogger Ami Worthen listed several such comments.

From a reader called “Ashley Cooper:” “The article seems to outline plenty of disparities that we already know exist. And yet the city is spending $350,000 on a study? Could some of that instead be spent on addressing these issues?”
From Brandee Boggs: “I believe it is lip service, just like the gentrification study. Dr Dwight Mullen, Dr Darin Waters,Dr. Dolly Jenkins-Mullen etc, could quickly know how to put that money to good use. Every plan that I have spent hours upon hours donating my time to, just sits on a shelf until it is no longer “relevant” and then Council pays another out of town group to do another one.”
From black city council candidate Dee Williams: “ … the City has stripped wealth and cognizance from the black community via policies and systemic racism … we elect palatable leaders who issue ‘top down’ mandates without accountability – [they] think they know what is better for us. I/we have spoken, sat, met with these Staff and written [and] talked to Council, but they do not listen, nor do we hold them accountable.”

BoBos Helping BoBos

So why spend a third of a million dollars to hire a smallish -- and thoroughly white -- consulting firm headquartered in one of the whitest major cities in America? (Source: Ten Least Diverse U.S. Cities — Including One in Metro Denver).

Well, the city cited BBC’s experience and qualifications, as well as those of its staff; the professionalism of its overall proposal, and the estimated cost.

At the end of the day, though, it may have been those staff bios that clinched the BBC consulting deal with COA. After all, people who have an office espresso machine, who enjoy getting lost in Mumbai, and who can juggle and eat fire sound like just the kind of fun folks who’d love to pop into New Belgium’s tasting room after a spirited bike ride along a greenway. Or, as Asheville's newest corporate resident, New Belgium’s marketing plan put it, they’re BoBos (short for Bourgeois-Bohemian), their target market: “highly educated male professionals and managers, mostly between 25 and 45 years old, who made a good income and so could afford craft beer priced 50 percent higher than domestic brands." (Cultural Strategy Group, Fat Tire Beer)

And they’ll be in and out of Asheville for a whole year.

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