It wasn’t a group of union rabble-rousers by any means. There were no megaphones, no scripted chants and no overt expressions of outrage.
Instead, about 30 or so Nashville union-card carriers convened at 7:45 a.m. on Thursday inside a sterile, dark room in the dated Nashville Convention Center to calmly observe the nine-member Convention Center Authority conduct its monthly meeting — flies on the wall, if you will.
Usually, the sparsely attended gatherings consist of project lobbyists, lawyers, Music City Center employees and, of course, the authority itself — a mayor-appointed board that functions as the $585 million Music City Center’s oversight body and holds the purse to the most expensive municipal undertaking in Tennessee history.
On this day, however, most spectators wore jeans and T-shirts, not expensive suits. They held signs that carried simple messages: “Wanna create tax revenue? CREATE LOCAL JOBS!”
When the Metro Council approved construction of the 1.2 million square-foot facility by an overwhelming 29-9 vote in January, most council supporters didn’t cite the city’s need to gain traction in the ultra-competitive convention center business or the drive to provide an economic jolt to downtown via thousands of new tourists. Rather, jobs dominated the discussion — specifically, the guarantee of local jobs during the center’s construction, which in theory would result in a crucial boost during a dismal economy. More than a few council members called Music City Center’s construction “Nashville’s stimulus” before giving their nods of approval.
Fast-forward to June. Some have growing concern that the promise of local job creation won’t hold true.
Contracts leaving state
Of the $155 million awarded in construction-related contracts so far for the project, more than 90 percent have gone to out-of-state companies, with only $14 million going to Nashville firms. Moreover, of the 200 workers currently employed at the 16-acre construction site, project leaders say only 65 percent of the workforce is local, below the 80 percent that most advocates are seeking.
In terms of approved contracts, there’s been $42.6 million awarded to Ceco, a St. Louis-based structural concrete company; $39.5 million has gone to Lenex Steel Co. of Indianapolis; and $50 million had previously been awarded to Orlando, Fla.-based Nash Inc./W.R. Nashville, a mechanical/plumbing outfit. (Late last week, bidding on the mechanical contract opened back up. One of the groups that had bid for the work was the Nashville Concrete Co., which proposed to do the work for $65 million.)
Convention Center Authority officials point out that it’s only the fifth month of a three-year construction process — plenty of contracts are still to be awarded, and thousands of workers haven’t been hired. They also say 74 percent of the $155 million awarded today will come back to Nashville through the hiring of laborers and the purchasing of supplies, equipment and materials.
Still, for some observers, Music City Center’s initial track record doesn’t seem to point to the level of local job creation they desired.
“We want them to know we’re watching,” said Bellevue area Councilman Bo Mitchell, who attended last week’s authority meeting. Mitchell has become a ringleader of sorts for the local job creation push. “We’ve seen the numbers so far. This was portrayed to us as a stimulus package for the city of Nashville. If we’re employing people from elsewhere, we’re not really helping Nashvillians out that much.
“Even if they do purchase supplies in Nashville, if you hire a local company they will purchase supplies here as well, so we’ll have even more of an economic impact on our local economy,” Mitchell added. “That doesn’t get there to me because we were told that it was going to be upwards of creating 3,000 jobs for Nashvillians. I’m really not into creating jobs for mechanical contractors from Florida.”
This isn’t a new issue for Mitchell, who acknowledges that some contracts could work out better for local participation than they appear on the surface. A month before the council signed off on the project, Mitchell filed an ordinance that would have, among other things, established a best-value contracting method to try to ensure preference be given to local firms. He said he pulled the bill after hearing organized labor leaders express confidence that local involvement would unfold regardless, and after Dean and his administration restated a commitment to create local jobs.
“At the time, the administration said that it was their goal for locals to get the jobs,” Mitchell said.
In an interview with The City Paper, Dean said that goal hasn’t gone away, adding that he still believes “one of the great benefits of this project is that it immediately infuses money into our local economy.”
“That happens through a lot of different ways,” Dean said. “It happens through the purchasing of materials. It happens through money that workers on the project spend — no matter where those workers are from. And it certainly happens through providing jobs for Nashvillians.”
In the authority’s contract with Bell/Clark, the joint construction team hired for the project is required to give “first consideration” to firms and subcontractors that agree to use a local or regional workforce. Contractually, though, there’s no percentage of local employees that a subcontractor must hire.
“Bell/Clark and the entire Music City Center project team need to make sure that those subcontractors are doing what they said they would do,” Dean said. “And the Convention Center Authority needs to hold them accountable.”
Local participation prioritized
Larry Atema, project manager for the Music City Center, likened Bell/Clark’s evaluation of large subcontractors to an “executive search,” a process that considers a number of factors, and one monitored by himself and others.
“You have to go out and find the best talent,” Atema said. “Who has the most experience? Who has the best equipment? Is it readily available? How does it relate to the schedule and the overall cost?
“The authority’s project managers participate in every aspect of that whole procurement process, from the day a deal is received at Bell/Clark,” Atema said. “We’re the monitor of all that.”
Some materials and supplies — and perhaps workers, depending on the level of expertise required — may not be available in Tennessee, however.
“The most glaring example of that is 11,000 tons of steel,” Atema said. “There are no manufacturers of steel, per se, in Middle Tennessee. We’re buying that steel elsewhere, but the erection of that steel, frames, and the people to erect it, are all local people.”
In the end, project leaders say steps are in place to make sure local participation is prioritized. The authority last week agreed to conduct an audit of the construction process, part of which could include reviewing the measures in place designed to ensure local jobs, as suggested by authority member Mark Arnold.
Leaders of Bell/Clark are also scheduled to sit down one-on-one with the heads of subcontractors in the coming days to stress the importance of local hiring.
In addition, the authority has established a workforce development program, which includes an on-site trailer where prospective employees can apply to work on the convention center. So far, more than 1,500 people have picked up applications.