By James Wright
A group of African American business owners is protesting the awarding of a District government contract to a white firm to renovate a Black-oriented space located in downtown Washington, D.C.
The Black Business Task Force is upset that the Fort Myer Construction Company won the contract, awarded by the District Department of Transportation, to renovate Black Lives Matter Plaza, the memorial on 16th Street., N.W. north of Lafayette Square near the White House.
Highlights of the project include the mural spelling “Black Lives Matter” on 16th Street will be on brick pavers and a dedicated pedestrian plaza throughout the center of the street. The construction started on July 19 and is scheduled to end on Oct. 1, according to a July 16 DDOT news release.
The BBTF, in an Aug. 23 news release, said the solicitation and procurement process didn’t include a Black contractor to be seriously considered for work on a project signifying injustice and inequity toward African Americans. Nigel Parkinson, president and CEO of Parkinson Construction, a contractor in the District and a member of the BBTF, said a Black firm could have been considered for the project.
“While it could not have been challenging to find a Black contractor for this project, there is a much bigger problem that overshadows that particular slight,” Parkinson said. “The problem is the lack of economic empowerment and inclusion of available Black businesses in the District and beyond. Mayor Bowser noted that her dedication [in 2020] was for ‘every Black and Brown American who has experienced injustice’. However, to show her enthusiasm for inclusiveness and justice, many Black contractors feel Mayor Bowser should have done more to ensure that the project was completed by a qualified Black business.”
Earlier this year, the District government started conducting a disparity study on its contracting practices regarding Black businesses with the aid of consultants. The study will be data-driven to prove that Black businesses have been systematically denied equitable access to District government contracts, Alfred Swailes, a member of the BBTF said.
Ultimately, Swailes said, the study — started by Bowser-selected consultants on May 7 with an April 2022 submission of its work to her — should be the basis of D.C. Council legislation legitimizing the awarding of Black-owned businesses more District government contracts and having the legal wherewithal to withstand a court challenge.
DDOT public information officials did not respond to critic’s concerns of BBTF.
BBTF leaders acknowledge Fort Myer as a certified business enterprise by the District Department of Local and Small Business Development as entitled to contracts with the city. Nevertheless, Swailes said the Black Lives Matter Plaza issue “clearly shows that the disparity study that was strongly recommended by the BBTF and is currently in process, is very much needed.”
“The disparity study will start to take us down a path that could lead to the replacement of the race-neutral CBE program with a race-equity-conscious Minority Business Enterprise program,” he said.