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Council approves center's growth

But the Convention Center project cannot begin until 17 unions submit plans on using minority workers.

City Council gave final approval yesterday to an agreement to expand the Convention Center, but construction will not start without plans from 17 unions to include minorities in the $700 million construction project and beyond.

Mayor Street is expected to sign the bill, which he helped amend last week to require each union to commit to Council's goals of hiring 40 percent minorities and 10 percent women.

The amendment also requires that each union document its current minority makeup, and submit individual minority-inclusion plans - intended to transcend the expansion project - for Council approval.

That amendment resolved a standoff last week in which City Council, critical of the Building and Construction Trades Council's record of including minorities, threatened to open the expansion to nonunion labor.

The operating agreement spells out how the state's largest-ever public works project will be built and run between the city, state, and Convention Center Authority.

Council's ratification was Gov. Rendell's condition for releasing state money for the project. But two other conditions must still be met for that to happen: Council must approve the unions' individual diversity plans, and the unions must sign a project-labor agreement with the Convention Center Authority that includes the diversity plans.

This is all supposed to happen within the next three to four weeks to meet the Convention Center's timetable for sending out bids and beginning construction in March, with completion scheduled for September 2010.

Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, who with Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. was one of the driving forces behind the new amendment, said "there's a lot of work to be done" to determine whether the unions will work with the city's hiring goals.

"Today is not the end," Miller said.

Patrick Gillespie, business manager of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said yesterday that the 42 unions in his organization, including the 17 locals expected to be involved in the expansion, all have diversity programs to varying degrees.

He said the unions would work with Council, Rendell, and Mayor-elect Michael Nutter "if people are looking for solutions to that issue," Gillespie said.

Members of the Philadelphia building trades met with Rendell for about 45 minutes in Harrisburg Tuesday night to discuss the Convention Center.

Gillespie called the meeting "very productive," and Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo described the discussion as "fruitful."

Rendell could play a key role as a buffer between Gillespie and Nutter, whose call on Tuesday for an end to "economic apartheid" in Philadelphia did not sit well with Gillespie. The labor leader yesterday referred to Nutter as Mayor-elect "What's His Name."

"The governor will continue to be involved to the degree he needs to be," Ardo said.

It remains unclear how the minority inclusion plans will be developed. City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said the law office had looked at plans that the unions could use as a template. Others said Nutter was also likely to be involved.

A new City Council, to be sworn in Jan. 7, is scheduled to hold its first meeting Jan. 24. But that Council may have to convene a special session before then to approve the unions' plans.

Goode said an enforcement mechanism to hold unions to their stated goals would be likely be part of any approved plan.

At a regular meeting of the Convention Center board yesterday, chairman Thomas "Buck" Riley said, "People have and will continue to put their heads together to see that it works, because it's in everybody's best interest that it works."

He told the board that Council had passed the legislation, which will keep the expansion project on schedule for construction bids to go out early in 2008.

"We're where we want to be," he said.

Riley briefly recapped what the board had done since January.

"We had a seven-year-old plan but no money, nothing in the state's capital spending bill," and now the year ends with Council approval of today's bill, he said.

"It's been a hell of a year for the Pennsylvania Convention Center," Riley said. "It's been a tremendous number of steps forward."