TAMPA, Fla. — For James Ransom, a co-chair of the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, the current controversies surrounding a massive city development in East Tampa can’t be understated.
“I would call it something bigger than a bump in the road,” he said. “It’s a chasm, and it has to be completely filled and has to be completely paved over properly for a smooth road ahead.”
On East Hanna Avenue, the City of Tampa is using $108 million in taxpayer funding to construct a new “City Center,” a government complex that will eventually house close to a dozen city departments and offer city residents a more centralized location for various city services.
Project leaders say the space will also include a public square, community meeting rooms, and places for bikes and scooters.
“It’s a very large project. $108 million is a lot of funds that the city is spending on this project,” Ransom said.
In recent weeks, however, community leaders, activists, contractors, and even members of Tampa City Council have questioned how the mayor’s office awarded the construction contract to DPR Construction, which broke ground on the project in January.
Some of them have expressed worry the city may not have followed the rules and guidelines for awarding such a construction contract. Some have pointed out that — after an agreement was made with DPR Construction in 2015 — the scope of the project grew exponentially from roughly $10 million to the $108 million price tag.
Activists like Ransom are also concerned about diversity, equity, and inclusion as the new government complex is constructed.
“As we understand it back then and now, the Black contractors who traditionally have a chance to bid on opportunities for a job like this were concerned that that opportunity was not made available to them,” he said.
“The population of Tampa is about 25% Hispanic and 24% African American, so it’s just reasonable as taxpayers and voters who happen to be Black that there’s some equity there that’s naturally built into something that significant,” Ransom continued.
In a memo made public Wednesday, a city attorney — writing on behalf of Mayor Jane Castor’s administration — assured Tampa City Council that rules were followed in approving a construction contract for the Hanna Avenue project.
“It is not unusual for the scope of complex City projects to evolve over time and for complex projects to be substantially delayed. In addition, it is not unusual for costs to exceed or vary from the original project estimate,” the attorney wrote, in part. “However, these factors do not mandate that the Hanna Avenue Project undergo a second (contract bidding) process.”
The memo said the mayor’s administration is also taking steps to ensure the project engages with small businesses and those owned by minorities and women. Last month, the city hired a designated diversity advocate to help achieve those goals.
However, the memo also denied a city council request to hear from the mayor’s administration directly during a Thursday meeting. It also warned council members that any attempt by the council to rescind or reverse the Hanna Avenue contract would potentially expose the city to “serious litigation and damage claims.”
To at least two members of Tampa City Council, the explanations included in the memo were not satisfactory, and Council Chair Orlando Gudes has since re-invited the mayor’s administration to appear at a council meeting on Mar. 17 to answer questions about the Hanna Ave. project.
“I believe all discussion, except involving litigation, must be discussed in the sunshine for the benefit of the public,” he wrote in a memo responding to the city attorney.
Councilman Bill Carlson echoed Gudes’ sentiment Wednesday.
“The administration’s memo leaves huge gaps in the facts and process surrounding procurement on this project. It also jumps to conclusions that may have legal flaws,” he wrote in a statement to ABC Action News. “The public deserves to know the truth about how their tax money is being spent. The administration should promote transparency rather than a shield of fear.”
According to the city website, the project is slated for a spring 2023 completion.