TAMPA — A longtime vendor for the Tampa Convention Center claims city officials are giving a competitor the edge it needs to win a local contract worth more than $300,000 a year.
At stake is a prized position inside the city's 600,000-square-foot waterfront convention center.
Groups that book meetings at the center often need sound systems, digital signs, technical personnel and video players, projectors, monitors and screens. Groups are free to hire anyone they want, and both Five-Star Audiovisual Management and AVI-SPL work with various events. But Five-Star has an edge by virtue of being the city's in-house provider of audiovisual services.
In exchange for that preferred position, Five-Star gives the city a cut of its gross sales at the convention center. From 2009 to 2011, those sales averaged about $515,000 a year. Of that, on average the city got $206,000 and Five-Star kept $309,000.
With Five-Star's contract scheduled to expire at the end of last year, the city issued a request for proposals from companies interested in the business. It received two responses: from Tampa-based AVI and from Five-Star, based in Aurora, Ill., west of Chicago.
Now the city says it intends to award the contract to AVI, prompting a complaint from Five-Star, which has had the audiovisual services contract for the center since 1996. A contract could go to the City Council for approval as soon as April 4.
In a letter to Mayor Bob Buckhorn and all seven council members, Five-Star's attorney contends that after the two companies' proposals were opened, city officials allowed AVI to clarify its proposal and thus lower the price it offered the city.
Five-Star also contends that Tampa Convention Center director Rick Hamilton, who was on the city's purchasing evaluation committee, has a conflict of interest because he and AVI regional sales manager Ivy Peterson are on the board of the private, nonprofit Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association.
"The deck seemed stacked from the beginning, and as a result, the procurement process was fatally flawed," Five-Star attorney Seth Mills wrote to city officials. "In this environment, no fair and unbiased competition could occur."
Tampa officials disagree.
"I've been doing this a long time, and I think this committee did an outstanding job on being fair to both sides," said Hamilton, who started in convention facility management in 1980. "It was a lengthy process, and I think both companies were treated extremely fairly from start to finish."
Yes, Hamilton said, AVI was asked to clarify its proposal, but so was Five-Star. Unlike bids, which are awarded primarily based on price, a city request for proposals seeks a broader scope of services that must be evaluated.
In addition to price, city officials may take into account factors such as experience, expertise, references and the financial strength of the applicant.
"We asked for clarification on both sides," Hamilton said.
AVI was ranked first both before and after city officials asked for clarifications. AVI chief executive John Zettel said the process was fair, and the city made a decision after looking at the breadth of his company's products and services.
AVI manages such contracts at 92 similar venues in the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico, has annual revenues of $585 million and employs 1,700 people around the country, 350 of whom work in Tampa.
"We are a large company with tremendous firepower and tremendous experience," Zettel said. "This is a core competency of ours. This is what we do for a living."
Hamilton also said he disclosed to the evaluation committee that he and Peterson are on the board of the hotel association, where he is a nonvoting member, and that he has not discussed the contract with anyone from either company.
"There was no conflict of interest that was deemed," said city purchasing director Gregory Spearman, who said Hamilton had no financial stake in how the contract was awarded. "It's just inevitable that the convention center director's going to come into contact with a number of prospective vendors as well as those who may be under contract, but that in and of itself does not constitute a conflict."
After the city issued its notice of intent to award the contract to AVI, Five-Star filed a protest. But when it did not prevail, the company did not follow up with an appeal, which are heard by an outside mediator.
A lawyer for the company said Five-Star didn't get details on filing an appeal until after the deadline had already passed, so it decided to take its case directly to the mayor and council.
"It's in their hands at this point," said Kevin Mekler, an attorney for Five-Star. He acknowledged that the city could determine that Five-Star didn't meet the appeal deadline, and that's that. Or, he said, "they've got the ability to go back and look at it and review the whole situation."
Times staff writer Stephanie Bolling contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at d[email protected] or (813) 226-3403.