Tampa City Center project gains community support, but questions linger

As the city addresses diversity concerns in the $108 million East Tampa municipal center, who decided against rebidding the contract remains unclear.
Renderings of Tampa's proposed City Center were unveiled Tuesday at a news conference at the construction site, 2515 E Hanna Ave.
Renderings of Tampa's proposed City Center were unveiled Tuesday at a news conference at the construction site, 2515 E Hanna Ave. [ City of Tampa ]
Published April 11, 2022

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor’s chief of staff thanked the public recently for holding the city accountable on its decision not to rebid a construction contract for what amounts to a second City Hall in East Tampa.

Several Black community leaders, who had previously been critical of that decision, said recently they were encouraged by the construction firm and the city’s efforts to obtain historic levels of minority participation. They weren’t interested in starting the process over, they said, but want to hold Castor to her vow to have historic levels of minority participation on a project that has grown from $10 million to $108 million in cost.

“Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Joe Robinson, an activist and engineering consultant.

Related: Bidding process on huge Tampa city project comes under scrutiny

But the City Center project remains a flashpoint for some council members and Castor critics. That’s especially true after the resignation of council member John Dingfelder last month and a recent legal finding by the administration that Orlando Gudes created a hostile workplace for a former aide.

Council member Bill Carlson pressed city officials at a meeting last month to reveal who made the decision to move forward on the City Center without rebidding it. That decision was described by a bidding expert at the University of West Florida as highly unusual and suspect.

Deputy city attorney Morris Massey and Bennett didn’t give a name. Under state law, Castor or her designee was empowered to move the project forward without rebidding it. “The administration brought this together collectively,” Bennett said.

Carlton leveled the criticism again last week following a press conference Castor held to announce new transparency and accountability measures.

“Last week we asked why a contract went from $10 million to $108 million without a (new bid). And nobody on her staff would answer the question about why that happened,” Carlson said.

Last month, city attorney Gina Grimes informed council members that no one from Castor’s administration would appear publicly to discuss the project. Castor said she felt the project had been vetted enough. In the end, though, staff showed up at the March 31 council meeting to provide an update.

Related: Tampa City Attorney warning: Don't discuss changing City Center bid

Bennett told council members the scrutiny had been helpful. He said city staff had moved quickly when additional money became available but had a “lot going on, coming out of COVID.”

He thanked community leaders for “holding us accountable in a way that provides continuous improvement ... All input is always welcome. We really appreciate all the feedback,” Bennett said.

Related: Questions raised about Tampa's massive City Center project

One of those leaders, James Ransom, with the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, said he had seen “positive traction” in discussions with the city over minority participation, but reserved final judgment. Until contracts are signed, he said, “we have nothing to celebrate.”

Massey said at the March 31 meeting that the city’s original 2015 contract with DPR had never been terminated. When money became available earlier this year, the city revived DPR’s original plans to relocate some city departments after determining a warehouse on the 11-acre parcel at 2515 E Hanna Ave. should be demolished. The city had previously made the same argument in a written memo by Grimes.

City officials have said the City Center project would benefit East Tampa and spur economic development. The 161,000-square-foot main facility would house up to 500 city workers who are currently working out of rented spaces, some of which are slated for demolition or other uses.

“It’s good for the community. It’s good for city workers and will be a point of pride in East Tampa,” said Adriana Colina, the city’s director of logistics and asset management. She said the city was committed to reaching at least 35 percent minority, women and small business participation —an historic high.

DPR project executive Brian Yarborough said the company has responded to concerns by hosting or attending at least seven outreach events in the last few months. The most recent meeting was Thursday at Ragan Park Community Center in East Tampa.

The city and DPR have also promised to meet the threshold of a city ordinance requiring large city projects to hire apprentices. City staff will report back on May 22 to update council members on their progress.