ST. PETERSBURG — Two years ago, the city and county heralded the ground-breaking on a $40 million Job Corps Center.
The federal center would employ 120 people at a gleaming new Midtown campus, provide free training and housing for up to 300 students ages 16 to 24 — and open in summer 2009.
Now that's looking like at least summer 2010, while nine pristine buildings at Fifth Avenue S and 22nd Street sit nearly empty and more than 3,000 job seekers who filed applications wait.
"It's very frustrating, very, very frustrating," said Goliath Davis, the city's senior administrator of community enrichment.
The campus is finished. But a bid protest means there's no company to operate it. An interim caretaker works at the site, nurturing fresh landscaping and keeping vagrants away. Grass trimmings mark pale, unused sidewalks. Three flag poles reach toward the sky, flagless. A neatly taped sign explains that the Job Corps Center has "suspended all activities involving the opening of the facility" and that "no employment activities are in progress."
Dorms, a cafeteria, a recreation center — they all await students.
Davis wants the U.S. Department of Labor to at least come and explain the delay, preferably at a public forum.
County Commissioner Ken Welch echoes his frustration.
He rides by the campus on his bicycle at least once a week, but hears very little about progress on the bid protest.
What he knows is that ResCare, a company that operates Job Corps centers in Miami and Homestead, was to run the center. It won the contract in August. Another bidder challenged the award. ResCare continued to run the center temporarily while a second round of questions was completed by bidders, but a competitor's complaint ended that, too. ResCare's contract was terminated. A company that wasn't bidding for a permanent contract, Chugach Education Services Inc., now takes care of the campus.
All of this should be over by early summer, when the Department of Labor expects the campus to have a permanent operator and students.
Welch learned this from a Jan. 12 letter to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's office from the Department of Labor. It's the best update he has.
That means less than satisfying answers to prospective students, workers and contractors: There has been a challenge to the bid. The center might open this summer. Sign up on our Web site for updates.
Spokesman Michael Volpe at the Department of Labor says that bid protests are fairly typical. He says a Tennessee company called Del-Jen, which operates four Job Corps sites nationally, filed the protest. ResCare, a Kentucky company that runs 15 centers, still hopes to be awarded the bid.
But Volpe won't say why the protest was lodged. Del-Jen referred questions to its Job Corps coordinator, who works in Arizona and didn't return phone messages.
Even ResCare says it doesn't know why the challenge was issued. It just hopes to be successful in the second round. It has filed answers to a new set of questions and waits for a response from the Department of Labor.
"We know there is a great need for an employer, and we hope there will be a decision," said Nel Taylor, ResCare's chief communication officer.
In the absence of a firm opening date, Welch prefers to consider long-term benefits of a Job Corps Center.
"The good news is, it will be here eventually," he said. "It's going to have a great impact. We just have to be patient for a little bit longer."
Becky Bowers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8859. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.