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JCPS/7PM Group - The $36.4 million Shawnee HS Renovation Story

By Carol Timmons for 7PM

Opportunities for Louisville-area minority-owned companies often are few and far between — especially in the construction industry. Projects with multi-million dollar budgets controlled by large, majority-owned general contracting firms routinely leave minority-owned businesses on the sidelines.

“We cannot find them.” “They cannot meet qualifications.” “They are not prepared.” “They are not big enough.” “They do not have the right paperwork and licenses.”

So goes the chorus of excuses. But do they ring true? Can a multi-million dollar construction project be accomplished in Louisville on deadline and on budget — and meet goals for minority- and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) participation

Turns out, it can.

“Not only is it doable, it is either a mandate in some instances like with the federal government, or a goal by most major corporations and institutions. However due to discrimination, the very reason these goals and mandates were put into place, many general contractors and procurement officers in major corporations and institutions simply ignore it. Many of the entities that have set up goals and mandates have no accountability nor monitoring to enforce it. Thus, there is no compliance. Minority businesses have long shouted about the unfair practices that they have had to endure due to the lack of accountability as it relates to the goals and mandates that are on the books but the business community has turned a blind eye to.“ Carl Brazley – CEO, 7PM Group

Jefferson County Public Schools is establishing a successful template for how to include MWBEs with the $36.4 million renovation project under way at The Academy @ Shawnee, located at 4001 Herman St. in Louisville’s West End. Work at Shawnee will update the facility, constructed in 1927, to modern standards for school buildings, including new mechanical systems. The project also includes the reopening of the school’s third floor that was condemned in 1981 and has remained unused with broken glass and debris littered in the vacated space.

Work is well under way on the Shawnee project and the unprecedented participation level of MWBEs is something school district officials are proud of, said Dr. John Marshall, Chief Equity Officer for JCPS.

“I can honestly say what I’ve learned from the Shawnee project is it is possible,” Dr. Marshall said. “A lot of times I have heard, beating my head against the wall: ‘Well, minority contractors and minority entrepreneurs just aren’t out there.’ Or ‘they don’t have the capacity to do what we need’ — which is absolutely false. What I have learned is — when you are intentional and unapologetic and tenacious about getting minority contractors to bid and then awarding them earned contracts — you can do it.”

Louisville-based 7PM Group, a minority-owned consulting firm and supplier diversity champion, has played a significant role in connecting JCPS officials with MWBEs that are working on the project, which is expected to be completed in late 2021. MWBE participation in the Shawnee construction project is on track to meet the women-owned business goal of 10 percent and exceed the minority-owned business goal of 15 percent with 19% participation. Six women-owned businesses, and 10 minority-owned businesses are working on the project.

7PM Group’s advisory services have enabled JCPS, as project owner, and EH Construction LLC, the project’s general contractor, to find and subcontract with MWBEs on the Shawnee work. “There is nobody who understands this work better” than 7PM Group, Dr. Marshall said. Company officials, including CEO Carl Brazley and President Vincel Anthony, had to “give me a Cliff’s Notes version of what this work really looks like and show me the ins and outs.”

Goals may be good. But goals are not enough, according to Anthony. “A lot of businesses and organizations think they’re doing a good job on the diversity front because they have a goal for MWBE participation,” he said. “They don’t focus on reaching the goal. They consider the job done by setting the goal. Or they will hire a diversity person and feel they have done a good deed. Then they don’t support that diversity person or don’t give them proper authority to achieve pushing forward and cannot be successful. This has happened unfortunately for years and years.”

Not so at JCPS — anymore.

Dr. Marshall credits JCPS Superintendent Dr. Marty Pollio with seeing the significance of providing opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses in JCPS contracts. To make that happen, Dr. Pollio empowered Dr. Marshall, giving him the reins to insist on adherence to the MWBE participation goals.

Only a dozen or so school districts in the country have a racial equity policy in place, Dr. Marshall said, adding that the majority of those districts have a minority in leadership. “Here we have this white man ushering in racial equity in an epicenter of racial injustice right now, and he has not yet wavered from that work,” Dr. Marshall said of Dr. Pollio.

One of the “gladiators” who Dr. Marshall sees pushing forward the racial equity work at JCPS is Delquan Dorsey, JCPS’s Community Engagement and Supplier Diversity Coordinator. “Delquan steps into the arena every day,” Dr. Marshall said. “He unapologetically advocates and pushes for black wealth, equity, inclusion of all, and he does it in some of the most uncomfortable circumstances. … And Delquan does it knowing and understanding that this is for the betterment of Louisville.”

General contractors were brought up to speed on JCPS’s intentional commitment to MWBE participation before bids were let on projects this year. “The goals have always been outlined in the specifications. But at the beginning of 2020 it was made abundantly clear it was going to be a major emphasis,” said Anthony Hall, Vice President of EH Construction, which won the bid to serve as general contractor on the Shawnee project.

The challenge seemed daunting at first.

“We had to take a step back and say, ‘OK they’re going to take this serious. And it’s not just going to be, ‘Let’s see how the bids come in.’ They are really going to expect contractors to get out there and beat the bushes and find minority- or women-owned contractors to be on this project — either to be a supplier or to be physically doing labor on this project,’ ” Hall said

“The percentage we were asked to make our goals was a little overwhelming at the beginning,” Hall added. “But, thankfully, the 7PM Group and JCPS got together and had some workshops and invited us in with other general contractors to meet some minority- and women-owned businesses, and we were able develop some relationships prior to the bid. … We pulled up our bootstraps, and we were able to meet the goal.”

In fact, Hall said the relationships forged with MWBEs met through the JCPS/7PM Group workshop have proven helpful on other jobs. “A lot of those relationships have continued on outside of our JCPS projects,” he said. “It’s turned out to be a great relationship for us and some of the other contractors.”

But is this degree of project management and monitoring really needed to ensure a fair playing field for MWBE-owned businesses?

Ask Frank McAffee, CEO and owner of Mechanical Systems Contractors LLC, which he started in 1998. He’ll tell you how the bid process sometimes works. It’s the under-bid then make it up on change orders game.

“I would go in and bid a job at $60,000 and (a majority-owned company) … would come in at $45,000. I hadn’t missed $15,000 on a $60,000 job. — I’d think, I missed 25% of it? — I mean I’m not that inept,” McAffee said. “So after two or three of these incidents it kind of dawned on me that this is deliberate to keep me out because they can make up 25% on change orders.”

After figuring out how bid processes can work as well as other runaround tactics that kept him on the sidelines of many projects, McAffee established a relationship with Schardein Mechanical, which subcontracts work to McAffee’s business. That source of work and other jobs he picks up keeps Mechanical Systems Contractors going.

Though his reputation as a master HVAC technician is well known in town, Anthony said, McAffee has not had an opportunity to serve as prime HVAC contractor on a major project more than two decades in business.

So what’s the answer?

“Having an organization like the 7PM Group ensuring that the owners of this project and JCPS executives don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk” helps McAffee feel optimistic. “GIve us a chance to grow the businesses and show that this community is ready to move forward and be more diverse. I am looking forward to the opportunity to network and engage with some of the prime contractors that might not be aware that my company exists.”

What project owners and general contractors need to do, according to Dr. Marshall, is find experts who connect them with MWBEs that can be successful contributors to projects. “A smart person finds the power source to plug into to get more information. You need to find that entity called 7PM and you need to find those experts that know this work and plug into them,” Dr. Marshall said. “Sometimes it’s not as much about having to figure it out yourself as being shown the way. What 7PM does is show you the way.”

7PM Group’s Anthony said to achieve MWBE participation goals there has to be a commitment from both the project owner, in Shawnee’s case JCPS, and the general contractor, in this case E.H. Construction. “What we have done — I call it the glue,” Anthony said. “We are the liaison between the owner (JCPS) to the general contractor to make sure that they fully understood the expectation and how the process would work, how to engage us, how we could help them. There’s a ton of accountability.”

Engagement with the MWBEs on the project is also part of 7PM Group’s role, ensuring that they have the insurance, bonding, etc., to be on the job site. “We also make sure they are being paid on time in accordance with the contract,” Anthony said.

That attention to detail is appreciated by subcontractors, according to Sharita Brown, owner of I AM Construction Cleaning LLC, a woman- and minority-owned company working on the Shawnee project. Brown, whose parents graduated from Shawnee, is pleased to have the opportunity to have her crews on site, doing construction cleanup that she described as a stepping stone to opportunities in other areas of the construction industry.

With the Shawnee project, “doors have been opened for us to allow (team members) to learn different skills in trade industries,” Brown said. “We believe in second chances.”

She also believes in extending a hand up to the next generation headed into the work force. Two of Brown’s workers at Shawnee are recent graduates of Central High Magnet Career Academy. Shareef Johnson and Deondre Howard spoke of how they appreciate the opportunity to get some real-world work experience before heading to college in the fall.

Johnson will attend the University of Louisville where he intends to major in business management. Howard, a Central Yellow Jackets standout football player, is headed to Langston University in Oklahoma City, Okla., where he will play sports as he works toward a degree in engineering.

The recent graduates’ experience on the Shawnee project is not only giving Johnson and Howard experience on a construction work site, they also are getting to see minority business owners proving they can do their part on a $36.4 million project. When students see firsthand that there are opportunities for them when they finish school, it helps fuel JCPS officials’ push to hire MWBEs for school system projects.

That focus on MWBE participation is being driven by what Dr. Marshall calls a group of gladiators. “You have me, you have Delquan, you have 7PM — Vincel, Carl and Juan (Robinson). You put all of us in that same arena taking on the masses that either don’t understand or don’t want to do it. I believe that’s how victory and I believe that is how success comes to our community.”

Dr. Marshall hopes the example is enduring and that the Shawnee project sets a template for minority participation in other major projects that occur in the Louisville area. “We wanted to be sure that Shawnee’s students and the predominantly black community around the school saw people who look like them working on the building. That’s important. That’s how we show students that there are opportunities for people of color,” he added. “It was simply the right thing to do.”

Minority participation on the Shawnee project is significant beyond the construction work taking place. It has a positive impact on community pride and optimism for the future, according to Dr. Marshall. “What is a bigger statement that we are making in the historic Shawnee neighborhood and school is now the community walks by and sees people that look like us doing the work,” he said. “Now the community walks by and sees JCPS investing in a building and investing in an area of town where a lot of people are not investing. People walk by and see that this very radiant principal (Kymberly Rice) and this very radiant board member (Diane Porter) all are behind this kind of work. And guess what? They all are black. That does a lot for the morale of a community.”


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