Council wants answers on firms’ minority hiring

Jan. 11, 2013 @ 02:58 PM

City Council members Cora Cole-McFadden and Steve Schewel want two would-be city contractors to explain why just one of the 80 people they have on staff is black.

Cole-McFadden instructed administrators to ask representatives of Riggs-Harrod Builders Inc. and Biohabitats Inc. to attend the council’s Jan. 22 meeting to answer questions about their recruiting practices.

“I think we need to be real sensitive to who we do business with,” Cole-McFadden said.

Riggs-Harrod is a Durham-based general contractor that’s first in line for a $1.4 million deal to build a new operations center for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The new building on Archdale Drive would replace an existing facility at Duke Park that’s long been a target of criticism from nearby homeowners. The city conducted open bidding on the project and Riggs-Harrod was low bidder by $84,968.

Five other construction companies also bid for the job. City officials said Riggs-Harrod had one black person on staff. Its president, Bruce Harrod, couldn’t be reached for comment.

His company like most builders subcontracts much of its labor. For at least one city-funded project – Housing for New Hope’s Williams Square housing project – it satisfied city equal-opportunity watchdogs who keep tabs on whether minority or women-owned subcontractors are getting a share of the business.

Riggs-Harrod’s website includes testimonials to the firm from such persons as Durham developers George and David Beischer and UNC Hospitals Senior Vice President Mary Beck.

Biohabitats is a Baltimore consultancy Public Works Department officials propose paying to evaluate a trademarked pollution-control technology they might deploy in the Falls Lake watershed. The firm is in line for a $52,470 contract.

It has no blacks on staff, a figure Schewel singled out while backing Cole-McFadden’s request. “In this day and age, it’s just hard to understand,” he said of the report.

Interviewed by phone after Thursday’s council work session, Biohabitats Chief Operating Officer Tim Burkett said the firm has employed blacks “both in technical roles and administrative” and now has four or five Hispanics on staff.

He said three black employees left in recent years to pursue other employment opportunities. One, an accountant, moved on after completing a CPA and receiving educational subsidies from Biohabitat. She joined an accounting firm.

Two black computer-aided-design specialists left to take jobs with the Bechtel Corp., the country’s largest construction and engineering company. “The primary driver for them [leaving] I think was financial,” Burkett said, adding that the departures occurred within the past two years.

Biohabitat in its recruiting works “hard to reach out to traditionally African-American institutions” like Morgan State University in Baltimore, which has a strong landscape architecture program, Burkett said.

The company has an office in Raleigh, but it hasn’t “done any specific outreach for the university campuses” in this area, he said.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that blacks make up about 40 percent of Durham’s population.