In a few weeks the Chicago Transit Authority will begin the Red Line South Reconstruction Project. This comprehensive project that stretches from Cermak Road to 95th Street will make much needed improvements to the Red Line. While this effort will force riders to use alternative routes for five long months, it is long overdue and worth the inconvenience. And, unlike some other major construction projects in recent history, there will be a strong African American presence from start to finish. That is good news, especially given the history of minority inclusion in Chicago.
When major construction projects are announced—especially ones that impact the South and West sides—the community questions that get asked first include: “Will this bring jobs? Will there be opportunities for Black entrepreneurs?” These concerns are rooted in decades of women and minority –owned businesses being left out of the equation when it comes to major construction projects. It is not without merit.
Historically, African American workers and business owners have been given little to no access to economic opportunities when major construction projects are planned in the communities where the majority of us live. The most recent example was the Metra Flyover project in Englewood where the fact the African American contractors got less than 1 percent of the work when the contract was awarded last spring led to protest rallies and marches.
From the start, CTA was committed to ensuring that the communities impacted by the Red Line Reconstruction Project also benefitted from the resources invested in the effort. To make this happen, they sought the help of the Chicago Urban League and other community organizations to work with them to ensure that African Americans had access to jobs and business opportunities.
On the jobs front, we’ve helped the community gain access to the jobs that have been created by the project including construction workers, bus drivers and traffic control aides. Already many people from the community have been hired and more are on track for employment. In addition, we’ve been a clearinghouse for contractor hiring and we have created a database of nearly 2,000 qualified workers and contractors for future projects.
We’ve also worked to ensure that African American entrepreneurs are connected to the subcontracting opportunities presented by the project. Since last spring the Chicago Urban League has worked with CTA to ensure that African American and women business owners could compete for the millions of dollars in construction contracts created by the system reconstruction. Through our Entrepreneurship Center, we worked with CTA to prepare and connect many African American and women-owned companies, or Disadvantaged Business Enterprises to the prime contractors on the track and station work.
The effort and focus paid off and we’ve got the numbers to prove it. For track work, total DBE contracts are $66.5 million with $40 million going to African American firms. For station work, DBE firms secured more than $17.5 million in contracts. Of those contracts 92 percent went to African American firms.
While the prime contractors are majority-owned firms, connecting African American subcontractors to this project gives those businesses the opportunity to grow their capacity so that they eventually will be able to compete as a prime contractor.
Among the Chicago-area African American firms with significant Red Line Reconstruction Project contracts are: Trim’s Trucking, E. King Construction, Terrell Materials, LiveWire Electrical Systems and security firm Kates Detective. Some of these companies are graduates of our Entrepreneurship Center programs that have prepared them to compete for, win and properly execute these lucrative opportunities. Another one of our program grads, LaGrange Crane Services, a woman-owned crane operating business, also scored a significant contract on this project.
These companies are proof positive that the right skills and preparation mixed with a commitment to diversity from those who issue government contracts, plus key community partnerships makes a good formula for access, opportunity and community investment.
So, as we make our way through the inconvenience of the Red Line South being shut down for five months, let’s remember that money spent on this major project will be reinvested in our community. Critically important to the Chicago Urban League, the success of this collaboration will not begin and end with this one project.
The work done here to create economic opportunity in our community will be used as a model for others to follow. Already, the City Colleges of Chicago and the Public Building Commission, are considering similar efforts to insure minority participation in the jobs and work generated by their upcoming large construction projects. Let’s hope this trend, that is a step in the right direction, becomes the rule and not the exception.
Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League