By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf
A Dorchester County tourist attraction dedicated to preserving the legacy of Harriet Tubman on the Eastern Shore has drawn ire from a minority group contractor whose bid for the project was turned down.
Contractor Gilford Corporation, which is owned by an African-American, found its bid rejected because it failed to meet standards of a federal program designed to assist minority businesses. Gov. Martin O’Malley described this as “an irony on top of irony,” at the Wednesday Board of Public Works meeting.
Gilford submitted the lowest bid of $12.7 million to construct the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park Visitor Center in Dorchester County, $1.2 million lower than the winning bid.
The park, adjacent to the Blackwater National Refuge, will contain an exhibit of Tubman’s life as a conductor of the Underground railroad — Tubman grew up as a slave in Dorchester County. She helped other slaves from the Eastern Shore flee to freedom in the North.
Because the state partially funded the project with federal grants, all hopefuls needed to comply with regulations set by the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, which stipulate 30% of the sub-contractors hired must be minority businesses.
The Beltsville-based Gilford failed to meet this mark, and requested a waiver of the DBE requirement, which the Department of General Services rejected because Gilford did not demonstrate they had made a good-faith effort to seek or hire minority sub-contractors, DGS Secretary Alvin Collins said.
“We have to look at responsible bids, meaning the person … who follows rules and all the policies,” Collins said.
Comptroller Peter Franchot said he “reluctantly” voted in favor of the contract because a representative from Gilford was not present at the Board of Public Works meeting.
Winning bid more than $1 million over Gilford’s
The state instead awarded the contract to W.M. Schlosser Construction Co. of Hyattsville for $13.9 million. The Board of Public works unanimously approved the contract at Wednesday’s meeting. The visitor center was funded by an $8.5 million federal Transportation Enhancement Program, $3.5 million in state money, a $1.1 million grant from the National Park Service and two grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, totaling roughly $836,000.
Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. in Cambridge also placed a $14.3 million bid for the center.
Zenita Wickham Hurley, special secretary of minority affairs, said the circumstances were “unfortunate.”
“I agree with everyone who said the fact we had to reject a minority bidder for not complying with a program put in place to help them … is the worst kind of irony,” she said. “But the facts are the program is very clear.”
The state estimates the project to be finished by early 2016.