If Kenneth Wong's tiny electrical-contracting company, grandly named China Power & Light, has a prayer of getting any work on the $700 million expansion of the Convention Center, it needs to be certified as a minority contractor.
But after 18 months of trying, he has gotten exactly nowhere, despite, he said, filing applications with the city's Minority Business Enterprise Council.
"It got so frustrating I gave up," he said.
That is exactly the kind of story that City Controller Alan Butkovitz heard last year when he began to investigate the difficulties that minority contractors had in advancing.
"We found that despite some progress . . . minority-, women- and disabled-owned businesses still face significant barriers," Butkovitz testified during a City Council hearing yesterday.
The issue takes on special importance as City Council is considering a Convention Center expansion ordinance that includes significant goals for minority participation for both contractors and workers in the project.
In his testimony in a hearing held on the subject by Councilwoman Marian Tasco, Butkovitz laid out the problems:
Small minority contractors, already hampered by limited access to working capital, are pushed into crisis when the city or general contractors fail to pay them promptly.
Bids need to be broken up into smaller assignments. Small businesses may need technical assistance to obtain insurance and bonding.
Statistics are kept based on participation levels that contractors promise. No one measures what is actually delivered. "Our review of recent city reports on disparity and diversity revealed that the participation data was overstated," Butkovitz said.
The Enterprise Council is understaffed and does not have the ability to enforce contract provisions.
Carolyn H. Nichols, the deputy finance director who runs the Minority Business Enterprise Council, expressed her own frustrations.
"It's easy to beat up on the MBEC," she said. "If there is a seriousness there, you have to give that organization the staffing and the tools."
She said she had only 22 staffers and an antiquated computer system. It is no wonder that nothing is enforced and that certifications are slow, she said.
"I think it's easier for me to join the Ku Klux Klan than to get certified," joked Larry Jones. He and his wife, Elaine, are an African American couple who own Majestic Steel Construction Corp., of Olney. Jones said it took them a year to get certified the first time and six months the second time.
Theresa Bryant, an African American general contractor who runs Ashley Enterprises, said it took time, but she was successful in getting certification.
Getting paid was her problem.
Bryant, a general contractor in Philadelphia who started out as a cleaning lady, nearly lost everything she owned because, when she was a union painting subcontractor, the general contractor did not pay her.
Subcontractors have no direct contact with the owners of the project, she said, which hampers their ability to collect.
"I came to the point," she said, "where I should have filed for bankruptcy."
Instead, she decided to become a general contractor - the outfit hiring the subcontractors. A Philadelphia organization, the Technical Assistance Center for Emerging Contractors, helped her get back on her feet. Now she is hoping for a chance to get some of the work at the Convention Center.
"It's a fight," she said.