Ellis: Noble not using minority contractors

As a new convention center hotel rises from the ground next to the Macon Coliseum and Wilson Convention Center, former Mayor Jack Ellis is folding a new wrinkle into the project. He claims the developer, Noble Investment Group, is not living up to its end of the bargain to employ minority firms.

He made his complaints public last week at a City Council meeting. In the contract that Macon signed with Noble, the Atlanta-based company pledged to use its best efforts to maximize the participation of local, small and minority-owned businesses in the project.

“To my surprise, not one minority-owned business or disadvantaged business has received any kind of contract,” Ellis told the council. Although he and other city officials told the public the hotel would generate jobs for the community, most of those getting contracts don’t live here, he said, adding that several business owners in town have asked him about the issue.

Ellis’ administration brokered the hotel deal with Noble in 2007 after a contentious and protracted political battle that enveloped the community. Through a bond sale, the city invested about $10 million in the public-private partnership.

Mark Rafuse, Noble’s chief development officer, said he had not heard about any hiring concerns until Ellis showed up at the construction site a few weeks ago with local minority contractors who wanted a piece of the job. Rafuse said he thinks Ellis’ assertion that no minority-owned businesses have been awarded work is probably false, but he can’t say for sure. He said Noble’s records track local, small and disadvantaged businesses as a single group rather than individually. Rafuse said that whenever possible, Noble has worked to partner smaller, less-experienced local firms with larger businesses that more routinely help build full-service Marriott hotels such as the one going up in Macon.

“Up until this, no one’s questioned our efforts,” he said. “It’s come as a little bit of a surprise.”

In the most recent report that Noble provided to Mayor Robert Reichert, the company indicates that nearly $22.4 million worth of services were contracted out by the end of January. Of that, $5.4 million — close to 25 percent — was awarded to local, small and minority businesses. How the money breaks down within those categories is unclear.

Some of the businesses are obviously more local than others that have been classified that way. For example, Technicon Engineering Inc., which received nearly $900,000 for architectural work, is headquartered in Macon. At the same time, companies such as Ace Electric Inc., which is headquartered in Valdosta but maintains offices in Macon and other Southeastern cities, are considered by Noble to be local as well. Ace holds a $2.56 million contract.

City officials are taking Ellis’ complaint with a grain of salt. The contract does not spell out any kind of minimal requirements for the number of local or minority businesses that must be awarded contracts. And it does not require Noble officials to employ anybody they think doesn’t have the experience needed to provide the requested services or who is not competitive in price, quality or bondability. In the end, no contractor — minority or not — has to be hired if it increases the overall cost of the project.

Still, the mayor’s office and City Council members say a closer look at the matter is needed, as is more detailed information on the progression of the 220-room project.

Reichert has asked Noble for additional data on minority contractors, said the mayor’s spokesman, Andrew Blascovich, but he generally thinks the company has made a good-faith attempt to fulfill its role in the deal.

“I think he’s concerned about it, but he’s trying to evaluate it,” Blascovich said.

Council President Miriam Paris, who had originally opposed Noble’s proposal in favor of a competing company’s hotel project, blamed Ellis’ administration for not writing a more sound contract. Ellis may raise a valid point now, she said. But even if he’s right, there is little that can be done because the agreement Macon has with Noble contains no mechanism to enforce minority hiring, she said.

“Once that contract is signed, you have very little control over that,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, who has supported Noble’s hotel and represents the council ward where it’s being built, said she hasn’t heard any concerns from local or minority contractors who think that they have been shut out of the project. But now that Ellis has raised the issue, it bears further scrutiny, she said.

“We assumed that the provisions of the contract were being upheld on both sides, so it’s something that we really need to look at,” she said.

Contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.