Questions raised about Tampa’s massive City Center project

·4 min read

TAMPA — When city leaders announced the biggest city building project in a generation last March, they pitched it as a way to bring economic activity to East Tampa, a predominantly Black area with high rates of poverty.

Now, questions are being raised by labor and construction officials about whether the city is following its own bidding and apprenticeship rules.

City Council members voted Thursday for staff to report back on those concerns on March 3 about the $108 million project that will relocate an array of city services to a large property at 2515 E Hanna Ave. Although a plan to relocate the police department to the 11-acre site was scrapped, several hundred workers will be moved to what has been dubbed “City Center.”

Since the council’s last update in November, questions have arisen about the way the city picked its general contractor, DPR Construction, and whether a recent city ordinance requiring large construction projects to hire apprentices is being honored.

During public comment at the Dec. 16 council meeting, Jonathan Graham, president of Tampa firm Horos Construction Services, said he feared the council members and public had been “bamboozled” by city officials. The regular bidding process wasn’t followed, Graham said.

“Everyone wasn’t given an opportunity,” Graham said. “It was just handed to (DPR).”

Neither Graham nor DPR officials have responded to requests for comment, but Tampa deputy administrator of infrastructure Brad Baird said the city followed state law.

DPR — headquartered in California but with an office in Tampa — was awarded a design-build contract, which is when one team, often of architects, engineers and contractors, sees a project through from start to finish.

The original 2015 contract called for DPR to evaluate what to do with the property. DPR recommended demolishing a warehouse there because of mold and roof issues, which its team did. DPR also presented the city with options for redevelopment, including relocating several city departments to the site, among them the Tampa Police Department.

At the time, Baird said, there wasn’t any money available to do anything more.

By the time financing came together to build City Center, there was a time crunch to get city workers out of buildings whose leases were expiring, Baird said. Allowing DPR to continue as the design-build team was legal under state law, he said. Putting a new request-for-qualifications would have led to delays of at least six months, he said.

“To go back out with a new RFQ when you have a qualified team in place that was selected for that site?” Baird said. “We could have gone that route but we wouldn’t have made any of the timeframes.”

Several Black leaders, including James Ransom, Ernest Coney Jr., Joe Robinson and Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County branch, said at Thursday’s meeting that they were concerned about the lack of outreach to the Black community and whether proper procedures had been followed.

“It’s beyond concerning,” said Stanley Gray, president of the Tampa Hillsborough Urban League, during public comment.

A local union chief has also questioned whether a steel erector company’s lack of a state-approved apprenticeship program violated an ordinance put in place last year.

Shawn McDonnell, president of the West Central Florida Labor Council, said he’s had little success in getting answers on whether it will be followed. He worries that it won’t, pointing to companies “trying to do an end-around” for similar projects in St. Petersburg, which passed a similar ordinance in 2015.

A state law preempted local apprenticeship ordinances if state money is involved, but it’s not in this project, he said. That’s why it’s so frustrating that there has been a lack of clarity, McDonnell said.

The city’s ordinance doesn’t require an apprenticeship program to be in place for each subcontractor when work starts, Baird said. The City Center is scheduled to open in the spring of 2023.

DPR, as the general contractor, and the subcontractor have submitted an apprenticeship program to the state for approval. If that approval doesn’t come, DPR will have to make up the 12 percent of total labor hours (or total hours worked by employees) reserved for apprentices. DPR will have to have other subcontractors make up the difference, Baird said.

“DPR will be subject to and held to the apprenticeship ordinance. There is no question there,” Baird said.

At Thursday’s meeting, DPR project manager Brian Yarborough said the company is reaching out to local unions.

Luis Viera, the Tampa City Council member who spearheaded the apprenticeship ordinance, says he’s satisfied after talking with city officials that the ordinance will be honored.

Part of the purpose of the ordinance was to spur contractors who don’t have an apprenticeship program to develop one. That’s what is happening with the City Center project, Viera said.

“That’s a step forward for our workers here in the city of Tampa,” Viera said. “To quote the band Journey, ’ Don’t stop believin’ before it even gets off the ground.’ "

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