Why is the chattering class in Tampa suddenly singing kumbaya over Mayor Jane Castor’s plan to build a City Hall annex in East Tampa? Nothing has fundamentally changed since the contract ballooned nearly 11-fold in cost, from $10 million to $108 million. Some minority-owned businesses might be pacified now with expanded opportunities to get a piece of the pie. But who’s looking out for city taxpayers as a whole?
Castor’s chief of staff recently thanked community leaders for “holding us accountable” on the City Center project. We have no idea what that means; the city has yet to justify why it declined to rebid the project when the scope mushroomed in scale. A national construction management firm, DPR, was initially awarded a much smaller contract in 2015 to demolish a warehouse on the site and come up with plans for the property. An early idea to relocate a handful of city departments there was shelved. But the project resurfaced in 2021, growing into what one city official described as the largest city capital project in decades: 161,000 square feet of space to house workers from 16 city departments. Despite the change in scope, the city decided not to rebid the work.
Black leaders from the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, the local branch of the NAACP, the Urban League and the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa all criticized the bidding process and complained that minority contractors were unfairly deprived from bidding. But the outrage has faded recently as several Black community leaders said they were encouraged by the construction firm and the city’s efforts to obtain historic levels of minority participation. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago reported Monday, these former critics aren’t interested in starting the process over, preferring instead to plumb Castor’s pledge to incorporate historic levels of minority participation in the project. This is checkbook activism at its worst.
The city says it didn’t rebid the project because it didn’t have to. If that’s the best explanation, it’s weak and unconvincing. It’s certainly reasonable to imagine that opening the work to competitive bid could have driven down the price. Even a 5 percent savings would’ve netted $5 million for the city. That’s a lot of repaved streets.
But the administration saw a shortcut and took it, and is now creating a distraction by talking about how the project will help minority businesses, apprentice workers and cash-strapped East Tampa. Those benefits are well and fine, but they have nothing to do with the bidding process. Taxpayers have no idea whether they are getting their money’s worth. And contractors rightly are left to wonder about the city’s procurement process.
The city should start over. This was a preventable mistake, and correcting it would send the right message to city staff, the business community and Tampa residents. It might also save precious tax money. The word transparency is thrown around pretty casually at City Hall. Here’s a chance to put that buzzword into action, and to remove the East Tampa annex as a political bur.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.