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Development diversity

A Times Editorial
Published April 9, 2005

On the surface, demands by St. Petersburg NAACP president Darryl Rouson to diversify the lineup of businesses involved with the city's development boom make a lot of sense. According to city officials, there is likely just one black-owned company in the city with the bonding insurance required to serve as a general contractor on big projects. A lot of work is needed to build smaller, black-owned companies so they might also compete for such business.

Still, there's more than a hint of self-interest in this crusade by Rouson, a local attorney with financial interest in Midtown's Sweetbay grocery store development who acknowledges he is also seeking work from the city as a bond counsel on other projects. As the city considers how to open up its process to a more diverse pool of contractors and businesses, officials should exercise care to avoid replacing white insiders with black ones.

In a recent meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board and at a later news conference, Rouson outlined a reasonable plan for expanding access: creation of a diversity task force in city government to make sure the offices awarding contracts are diverse; establishment of a minority contractors' association at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce; and more money for vocational training.

But with the city prohibited from using race as a factor for awarding business or services - Jeb Bush's One Florida plan and a court decision ended similar practices on the state level - Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said even tracking the number of black businesses that need help is difficult. Instead, the city helps economically challenged companies through its Small and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Assistance program - which may miss successful black-owned companies or those that have qualms about revealing financial details.

Despite some efforts, it remains unclear whether the city is doing all it can to diversify the companies involved with city business and development projects. And its efforts to increase vocational training seem more likely to develop results months and years from now, particularly since the city has no direct control over public schools. So efforts to increase public discussion and bring more immediate action are welcome.

During his meeting with the Times editorial board, Rouson asked why Mayor Rick Baker wouldn't want to "go down in history as the mayor who created five or six black millionaires?" But a better legacy for Baker would be creating five or six new black general contractors, expanding the business base in St. Petersburg while ensuring more than a handful of well-connected, white-owned companies benefit from the building boom.

[Last modified April 9, 2005, 07:10:29]

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