When voters approved the construction of the new $1.5 billion Kansas City International Airport, the Black business community hoped it would prove transformative.
Those who were old enough knew the story of how construction of Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport had proved to be a game changer for Atlanta’s Black business community. They had a vision: the construction of KCI could be equally transformative. However, members of the city’s administration and city council weren’t equally visionary.
BLACK CONTRACTOR REPRESENTATION LOW
Before construction began, the KCI Airport Consortium – made up of organizations including the Black Chamber, Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the Black United Front Kansas City Chapter – called on the city council to create a minimum of 40% MBE utilization and workforce goal for the total project.
Instead, Edgemoor, the airport’s developer, agreed to achieve 20% minority participation in both professional and construction services. Lacking much vision, the city’s goal was even lower, at 17% minority participation for professional services and 15% for construction, a disappointing goal for a city with a 40% racial and ethnic minority population.
According to data acquired by the Kansas City Black Chamber of Commerce, almost $900 million of the $1.5 trillion or about 60% of the project’s expected contracts have been awarded so far. Of that, minority-owned businesses have been awarded 18%. Minority-owned businesses were awarded 20% ($16 million) of the total $80 million for professional services.
However, Black businesses represent just over 10% ($90 million) of total construction contracts.
“I would not describe 10% participation of African-American businesses as transformative,” said Kelvin Perry, president of the Black Chamber of Greater Kansas City, who noted African Americans are 28% of the City’s population.
The developer was only required to meet Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) and Women Business Enterprise (WBE) minimum requirements. However, there are no requirements specific to the ethnic mix of the participants. Perry questioned, “Can we do better? Can we look at some other approach?”
“It’s incumbent on Kansas Citians to ask the question – are these goals and the policies we have in place, is that enough in terms of what we need for equity and inclusion, for our businesses and for our community?” stated Perry.
Construction of the new KCI terminal was approved by a vote of the citizens in November 2017. Sold on the point that the new terminal would be transformative for the city, the Black community overwhelmingly supported the project.
“The airport was brought to the community as being a project of transformation, in terms of contracts and jobs for the African-American community,” said Perry. “This project did not fare as it was reported to us.”
But Perry isn’t surprised. “The project was not designed to be any more or less than the typical Kansas City project,” he said. “I didn’t think the airport was any different than 20 or 30 city projects I’ve looked at that preceded it.”
BLACK CHAMBER EFFORTS
The Kansas City Black Chamber has nearly 80 members, with a combined revenue of more than $400 million. The businesses together employ more than 1,000 individuals and have been in business an average of 20 years or more. Of the organization’s members, 21 are working on the KCI project – seven on the professional services side and fourteen on the construction side.
“We were ready for the low representation and we tried to maximize the enterprise opportunities for our members. We were very engaged,” Perry said.
The Black Chamber supported its members at KCI, helping them get paid and with negotiations on contracts.
“We took a proactive position on the project and fought for our members. We were really engaged in one-on-one dialogue with (Edgemoor) about specific companies that can do the work. It paid off for the businesses,” Perry said.
STRATEGIES TO INCREASE MINORITY PARTICIPATION
Fahteema Parrish, president and founder of Parrish & Sons Construction, one of the few Black woman-owned construction companies working on construction of the new Kansas City International Airport terminal, believes that if developers “can’t find” minority firms, they should do their best to get involved in creating them.
She’s doing her part and hires local young people to intern with her through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.
“We have to create the pipeline to continue to allow the young people of tomorrow the same opportunities so that they can stand on our shoulders,” Parrish said. “We have to make sure young people are given the opportunity and exposure to construction and the trades.”
Perry said change starts with local elected officials and focusing on increasing the city’s minimum MBE requirements.
The Black Chamber has asked the city’s Human Relations department to consider making modifications to the city’s MBE and WBE requirements and to look closer at current disparities between ethnic groups currently acquiring contracts as MBEs and WBEs.
“We have to pursue some other avenues,” Perry said. “These programs were designed many years ago to remedy discrimination against African Americans, but they’ve been usurped and taken over by all ethnic groups and that doesn’t serve us very well.”
Ideally, Perry would have liked to see at least 45% MBE participation at KCI in all facets – more than double what the project currently has, but most of the funding has been awarded and the project is more than halfway complete.
“Very little can be done to improve [African-American participation] at this point,” Perry said.
The Atlanta Hartsfield Success Story
Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, saw construction of a new airport as an opportunity to strengthen the city’s Black middle- and upper-class and he shocked the city’s White business community when he announced in the late 1970s that 25% of the airport’s total contract dollars would be awarded to Black businesses.
It was a move that helped even the playing field for Blacks in all fields in Atlanta and helped catapult Atlanta into its present position as a Black economic mecca.
“Jackson was like Dr. martin Luther King Jr. when it came to ensuring African Americans got a chance to participate in the nation’s economic marketplace,” Herman Russell, chairman and CEO of the nation’s largest Black-owned construction company, told Black enterprise. At the time, Russell maintained that his $300 million firm would not be the size it was if not for Jackson’s policy.
Black business leaders in Kansas City had hoped the expansion of the Kansas City international could prove the same kind of economic impetus, but as the project enters its second year, they’re growing even more disillusioned.