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Minority builders waiting for work

Before Hurricane Andrew, Paul Curtis thought he had a $1.5-million foothold in the construction business in South Florida.

The Tampa-based general contractor had landed several contracts to expand buildings at Homestead Air Force Base. But the storm blew away those revenues when it nearly flattened the base.

"I was depressed; I thought I was going to become Homestead's favorite minority business enterprise," said Curtis, who is black.

A day after the storm, Curtis joined the ranks of dozens of Florida builders seeking to help rebuild the base and surrounding communities. His wait has been long.

Last week he finally got a bite: the U.S. Small Business Administration offered him a chance at a multimillion-dollar contract to clear debris from Key Biscayne Park. If he wins it, Curtis said, he would become one of only a handful of black contractors with a major stake in the reconstruction efforts.

As south Dade County began clearing away its rubble, many emergency construction jobs rapidly fell into the hands of large, white-owned, out-of-state firms, according to some South Florida industry associations and politicians. Local companies, especially minority-owned or women-owned firms, were being shut out, they said.

"The rebuilding is connected with tragedy, but it also represents a great opportunity for us," said Dwayne Wynn, a black construction equipment supplier in Miami.

Only recently has the door of opportunity begun to open for small, women-owned or minority contractors in Florida, some of these contractors say. They attribute that to heavy criticism focused on the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal entities administering some $6-billion in federal reconstruction funds.

So far, FEMA and the Army Corps have let 40 to 50 contracts, mostly for debris removal. The largest, at $15-million each, went to five white-owned, out-of-state firms and an Orlando company, Hubbard Construction, which is also white-owned. Many of the subcontractors for these companies had already been hired.

"There was a great deal of frustration that not only had the big six contracts been awarded, but a lot of (their) subcontractors had already been chosen," Wynn said. "Members of our communities could not get access."

Hispanic-owned companies, women contractors and even Anglo contractors (non-Hispanic whites) complained to federal, state and county officials. The Hispanic American Builders Association in Coral Gables wrote a letter to President Bush, saying the rebuilding is in the hands of "vulturing outsiders."

In an election year, such criticism can count. Since the "Big Six" contract awards, the Army Corps has slowed its award process, better publicizing the contracts up for bid and giving contractors 48 hours instead of 12 hours to get their bids in and crews ready.

"No one at the top level wants race to become a real issue in particular to the management of these funds," said Marvin Davies, special assistant to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who also has registered complaints about the reconstruction efforts.

Political motivations weren't part of the change, said Randy Edney, the Army Corps' small and disadvantaged business utilization specialist.

In the week following the storm, FEMA and the Army Corps had the prodigious job of getting major roads cleared so that basic necessities could reach South Dade residents, he said.

"What we had was the immediate need to supply water and food," Edney said. "A homeowner could not care less . . . about the time a local contractor has to bid (on a job)."

The big six contractors had shown FEMA their quick mobilization skills in past disasters, he said. Besides, he said, a lot of the local firms didn't even have phone service yet.

Nevertheless, the Army Corps last week began to keep track of the number of disadvantaged contractors getting storm work. Affirmative action goals have been "negotiated" into the big six contracts, Edney added.

Still, some of the stated goals of up to 30 percent of the business going to disadvantaged firms doesn't quite add up, said Roberto Cervera-Rojas, executive director of the Hispanic contractors group.

The Miami area is more than 70 percent Hispanic and black, he said.

"My math and their math in my opinion don't match up," he said. "How come only 30 percent of the work is going to 70 percent of the population?"

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