Residents protest hiring for Coppin project

A small but vocal group of community leaders rallied Monday morning on a west Baltimore street corner to pressure Coppin State University and its contractors to hire more neighborhood residents during construction of an $87 million science and technology building — the latest in a series of efforts to force government-supported projects to hire in the city.

With the sound of construction equipment in the background, civil rights activist Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr. said Coppin and the contractor, Barton Malow Co., have reneged on a commitment to hire local residents for jobs. He said data from the contractor indicates that only 9.4 percent of the workforce is from the surrounding neighborhoods.

At a groundbreaking in May, Cheatham said, Coppin and the contractor "promised the president of the City Council and the mayor that there will be substantial hiring."

Coppin and Barton Malow officials did not dispute Cheatham's figures, but pointed out that minority contractors have gotten 40 percent of the total value of the contract, far more than the 25 percent required by state law.

Luwanda W. Jenkins, chief of staff to the president of Coppin, also said more workers would be needed for the project. "We will work to improve on what we are currently doing," she said.

Local hiring on large construction projects has become an issue in the city. In Dec. 2011, 200 people marched asking that local residents be trained to get some of the thousands of jobs on the 88-acre East Baltimore Development Inc. project north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

And the City Council recently passed a bill that requires businesses getting large city contracts or financial support to hire 51 percent of new workers from Baltimore. But that bill, which takes effect in six months, doesn't apply to a state-funded project such as Coppin's.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, the bill's sponsor, said Monday he wants to meet with Coppin officials about increasing the percentage of jobs going to local residents.

"Are we concerned as a city? Yes," Young said. "I'm going to be reaching out to the president of Coppin to find out how can this major redevelopment benefit that community."

Young emphasized that city officials lacked any real power in forcing contractors to hire locally on a college development.

"I'm concerned about it, but this is a state project — we have no real say about it," he said.

An entourage of Coppin officials and representatives of the contractors attended the rally, saying they were ready to meet with community leaders to discuss the issue. After listening to Cheatham speak, Jenkins began making a statement to reporters gathered around. Cheatham interrupted her, saying it wasn't her rally and he would decide who spoke when.

Cheatham said he disagreed with university officials even though they, too, are African-American. "They sent someone who looked like me at me," he said to the group.

According to documents distributed by Cheatham, 16 of 171 contracting jobs for the project have gone to neighborhood residents. Of those, the majority were hired by P&J; Contracting, a construction firm owned by Pless B. Jones. His company has employed 10 local workers out of 18 positions.

Mitchell Dean Sr., who owns a house in the neighborhood, said he would like to apply for a construction job at the construction on Warwick and North avenues.

Laid off two years ago after 20 years of working in fabrication and welding, he said, he has been looking for employment while trying to get new skills to make himself more marketable. He got a job last year but was laid off in January. "I am about to lose my house," said Dean, who is the father of two children. "There has to be more opportunities for young men," he said.

Twenty percent of the homicides in the city occur in the neighborhood around the construction site, and the area has high unemployment, Cheatham said.

Cheatham has begun a campaign for a House of Delegates seat in the 40th District, which includes parts of Northwest and Southwest Baltimore.

Ben Morgan, a project director for Barton Marlow, said he would welcome applications from neighborhood residents, saying they should come to the trailer with a resume.

"We have a demonstrated commitment to hire from the community," Jenkins said, adding that she believed a large effort had been made to hire minorities for the jobs. Several of the contractors are minority-owned. "We will open up a dialogue with the community association leaders," she said.

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