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The final St. Elizabeth's plan. (General Services Administration)

According to the first hiring report for the massive construction project at St. Elizabeths in Congress Heights—a $3.4 billion undertaking—general contractor Clark Construction is on track to meet hiring goals for small businesses and local residents. Forty percent of the contracts are slated to go to small, local, and disadvantaged businesses, and every available truck in Ward 8 is currently being used to haul away soil from the site.

But at a field hearing last night on Martin Luther King Boulevard SE, that didn’t stop D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton from preemptively admonishing representatives from Clark and the future tenant, the Department of Homeland Security, that they had better keep it up.

“If something happens, it is Clark that we are going to hold responsible,” she said, pressing Clark vice president Lincoln Lawrence on how his company has worked to help local companies get certified through the Small Business Administration.

Mostly, she wanted to get Lawrence’s promises on the record, so that broken promises of earlier construction projects aren’t repeated.

“There is a long and sorry history of failing to employ in the District of Columbia. And that is a nationwide problem for people of color,” Norton said. “The only way to break through is to lay it out on the table.”

The other side of the federal project’s impact on Ward 8 is what will be constructed outside the secure facility’s walls: There have been only preliminary discussions about the kinds of retail and eating establishments that the government might foster on the main thoroughfares around the campus. Norton took issue with the $10 million now budgeted to create tunnels for employees to walk underneath the street between different buildings—meaning they would never have to leave the complex at all.

“I’m not going to the appropriators and saying I need $10 million to get these people across the street,” Norton told Lawrence and DHS’ project executive, Shapour Ebadi. “I don’t know why we need a tunnel underground, and I also think it carries the impression of employees being closeted from the community…Unless I hear a better reason than I have heard, that is one cost saving that the administration will get.”

Regarding employment: Despite all the training programs preparing local residents for the jobs that will become available during construction, there are still hurdles to placing graduates in paid positions. One, according to Ward 8 Business Council president James Bunn, is communication. For example, he said, the word went out that 1,500 jobs would be available, and over 2,000 people applied for them. But, he said, the jobs were phased, and only a small handful were available immediately, creating confusion and frustration among applicants. Even last night, many heard that the hearing was actually a job fair, and a crowd of job-seekers showed up looking for work, only to be disappointed.

A second issue is lack of confidence in local, minority owned businesses and their workers. Beverly Thomas, president of Regional Contracting Services, told Norton about a technique known as the “pass-through”: general contractors will routinely bring on a certified minority-owned small business, as mandated by the regulations. But instead of just having them complete the project, the contractor will ask the small business to take a chunk of the budget and do absolutely no work, while it runs all of the orders through the non-minority suppliers it wanted in the first place.

Thomas said that minority businesses can “muscle through” these attempts at exploitation by establishing a track record, “so they see you not as a minority business but as a legitimate construction firm they can go to market with.”

“You have the opportunity to say no,” Thomas said. “But if you don’t, you can’t cry foul.”

It’s not just a problem with federal contracts. As we learned last week, projects built with District money have also fallen short on their local hiring goals.

This morning, Councilmember Michael Brown told Housing Complex that the reluctance to hire locally it’s a mentality problem with developers. “The issue is, I think, that there is a stigma against the D.C. worker that prevents people from getting these jobs,” he said. “If you’re a company, you’re just so conditioned to believe that.”