Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is as good a day as any to start an economic empowerment movement for those shut out of lucrative state and municipal contracts.
That’s exactly what Austin resident Willie Thompson did when he and 14 individuals from the construction industry met on King’s birthday. The goal was to formulate an action plan to secure more contract opportunities for black owned construction companies and build construction capacity in the community. That meeting marked the impetus for the Black Construction Alliance, 8727 S. State St.
Thompson, a union carpenter for 28 years, called it a “dismal failure” that black contractors consistently get less than one percent of state and two percent of city contracting opportunities when blacks represent 14.5 percent of Illinois’ population and 32.9 percent of Chicago’s residents.
Last year, he said, the state did $35 billion in construction contracts from everything from engineering, painting to architectural and landscaping “and black folks have gotten less than one percent.” That’s opposite of Dr. King’s economic vision for black Americans since blacks are still shut out of unions jobs, Thompson said.
“We want to be conscious of the disparity that we have. It’s all about getting more than the one percent share,” said Thompson, BCA’s board chair and owner of Thompson Construction.
Capacity is often blamed for the paltry percentage of contracts going to black contractors, a notion Thompson disagrees with.
“The powers that be said it is based off capacity. They consistently say black folks haven’t shown capacity to do projects…,” he said.
BCA aims to change that through what Thompson called asset mapping. The idea is to find what black contractors are out there, their trade skills and project history and create a database from that. Even down to black hardware store owners who can supply construction or building materials, Thompson said. By creating this network or pipeline, companies can go there to hire qualified and bonded black contractors.
“What we have is a database of those resources that the contractors can tap into,” Thompson said. “It’s a bottom up approach.”
BCA has already yielded results. Thompson noted his organization was able to furnish four contractors for a 700 unit condo project in south suburban South Holland. He said the project manager connected with BCA to find contractors ranging from tuck pointing to carpentry work, fencing and masonry work.
“Our folks have been able to get exposure to more job opportunities so they can increase the market share,” he said.
The database also helps build capacity. Contractors who need accountants, architects or specific skilled tradesmen can use the database to find them. Having people with the necessary skills to round out a contractor’s workforce enables them to bid for more jobs, said Thompson.
Capacity comes from having the people and the resources to do the projects. BCA also has relationships with lending institutions to secure financing, another hurdle for black contractors. There’s also a mentoring component for those interested in the construction trades.
“As we begin to identify these folks, [we] find out what they are lacking to overcome these barriers to success and develop a strategy so they can overcome those deficiencies,” said Thompson, who plans to open a BCA branch on the West Side.
Since that Jan. 20 meeting, the group has grown from 14 members to over 600. Members range from carpenters, electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, laborers to handymen and architects.
Thompson believes by having a solid pool of black contractors, redevelopment of black neighborhoods can start from within. Architects, engineers and landscapers can examine a block and make recommendations on what houses can be rehabbed, demolished or even if a vacant lot is feasible to build a new structure or a park. Another part of that is hiring residents who have construction skills to do some of the work, he said.
“We can impact the community in that way,” said Thompson. “It is creating a network of resources within your community.”