Shoring Up The Banks

AMOS Project says sprawling riverfront project needs more local workers

With the first phase of construction on The Banks winding down in June, Cincinnati and Hamilton County leaders are happy with the way the $800 million project is finally starting to take shape along downtown’s riverfront.

One local watchdog group, though, is decidedly unhappy about how The Banks is shaping the local workforce.

In October, the AMOS Project — a Tristate coalition of 30 churches dedicated to promoting social justice and reducing poverty — released an analysis of The Banks workforce so far. Its study concluded that, despite promises to the contrary, up to 450 jobs involved in the construction work aren’t going to local residents who need it the most.

According to the analysis, nearly 80 percent of Banks workers come from outside Hamilton County, and Cincinnati residents hold only six percent of those jobs.

“What has happened in the first phase is not at all what they said they were going to do,” says the Rev. Gregory Chandler, president of AMOS. “At the beginning, they assured us The Banks wasn’t going to be another multi-million dollar building project on the riverfront, while just over their shoulder there are communities with people who need those jobs but don’t get them.”

Proposed in 1999, The Banks is envisioned as a mix of condominiums, offices and shops between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. At least $200 million in taxpayer money is expected to be included in the financing plan for The Banks, which has an estimated price tag of more than $800 million.

This isn’t the first time that AMOS has raised concerns about The Banks.

In 2007, AMOS played an instrumental role in expanding the project’s oversight board, known as The Banks Working Group, to include two African-American members in hopes of addressing inclusion issues.

Before construction started on The Banks, county officials adopted the “Joint Policy for Small Business Enterprise, Economic Inclusion and Workforce Development,” which mandated the tracking of minority-owned business participation, as well as workforce composition by minorities and women.

Along with those goals, leaders also pledged that local workers would get jobs, although they weren’t legally able to set a quota for the number of local residents employed by construction firms. Later, when the partnership of Carter Real Estate and Harold A. Dawson Co. was named the project’s master developer, AMOS was encouraged by the firms’ history of employing local workers.

But earlier this year the group suspected that little work was coming Cincinnatians’ way.

This summer, AMOS asked for and received payroll information from the project’s economic inclusion consultant, Lockland-based Ellington Management Services. The information included residential information for all Banks workers through Aug. 1, 2009, which AMOS then mapped.

After five weeks of number-crunching, the group reported that of 445 jobs on the project, only 94 workers live in Hamilton County, including 29 that reside within Cincinnati city limits. Conversely, 179 workers come from other Ohio counties, while 101 reside in Kentucky. In all, AMOS said, 172 Banks workers — 40 percent of the workforce — were from out of state.

“We found that, comparatively, very few workers on The Banks live in Hamilton County. What is the logical reason that those who live here can’t also benefit from these projects?” Chandler posed.

All contractors on the publicly funded, prevailing wage portion of The Banks are required to submit a certified payroll on the project. This includes the employee’s address and other data. AMOS Project volunteers analyzed and compiled all the addresses for the workers and then mapped where they lived.

The volunteers discovered workers were coming from as far away as Florida, Georgia and Texas. Although many people listed their address as being in Cincinnati, once those were mapped, AMOS discovered that a significant number of addresses claiming “Cincinnati” were from all over the county, leaving just 6 percent of the workers on the project actually living within city limits.

The group sees this as a failure to live up to The Banks management’s promises and another in a long line of “business as usual” exclusion of local workers.

AMOS vice president Bishop Dwight Wilkins says, “It’s happened time and time again, and it’s been going on forever. Cincinnati keeps trying to do the same thing, and it comes out the same way every time. There is no model to make sure those jobs stay in the city.”

Wilkins grew up in the West End in the 1960s, when the neighborhood was gutted for the Interstate 75 project while jobs were promised for its residents. Those jobs, he says, never materialized.

AMOS’ release of their findings were answered a day later by Ellington Management. According to the firm, project management has met and exceeded every goal promised by the policy. Among those goals: small business enterprise participation and workforce goals for minorities and females.

Ellington’s report revealed more than four out of every five Banks workers live within in a 15-county area of Greater Cincinnati and 30 percent of workers within the city of Cincinnati.

Eugene Ellington, president/CEO, admits to frustration with AMOS. He’s not sure how AMOS compiled their numbers and stands by his company’s account.

“I know the people from AMOS. I know their intentions are good, but this was simple grandstanding,” he says. “Their math is simply not correct. The numbers don’t even add up on the paper they put it on.”

Chandler responds that AMOS’ conclusions are based on the numbers The Banks gave them.

Banks project executive John Deatrick met with AMOS leaders this week.

The former director of the city’s Engineering Department who once served as project manager for the $350 million Fort Washington Way project, Deatrick is confident in Ellington’s numbers and that project contractors are using their “best effort” to put Cincinnatians to work.

“This meeting isn’t about whose numbers are right,” Deatrick says. “I want to sit down with (Chandler) and their people and see what they want as an end result. I think the companies working with us have made the effort. We all want more local residents working on the project, but I hope we’ll talk about how we go about it.”

Project management already has mandated that all open jobs be listed at local One-Stop employment locations, and Ellington cites his firm’s outreach sessions that seek out residents looking for work.

Neither has led to an increase in the numbers AMOS examined, though, because new hiring has been almost non-existent.

Mostly because of the economy, The Banks has seen a net gain of only one job since work began at the beginning of 2008, Deatrick says. With the strangled economic climate, contractors working on the project are struggling to keep employing the workers they already have, he adds.

Messer Construction, the project’s construction manager, have had losses in revenue, which makes adding jobs tough. If they’re able to add any workers, most start with their own laid-off personnel. Even apprenticeship programs have been slashed.

Deatrick says that he, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory and county commissioners continue to meet with contractors regularly. Although state and federal laws make it impossible to mandate that job openings go to Cincinnatians, they continue to make that preference clear.

County Commissioner David Pepper says that he, along with other leaders, have seen statistics during these meetings that he didn’t like.

“I don’t disagree with AMOS at all,” Pepper says. “You see the numbers of county residents working for them, but there’s not enough. I don’t like seeing that either, and we continue to make it clear to the companies in these meetings that we think the lion’s share of jobs should go to Hamilton County residents.”

As Phase II of The Banks begins in the coming year, Chandler and AMOS leaders hope that a well-defined process for making sure of that is put in place.

“These kinds of conversations are always important to have, so we can hopefully come to an understanding about what happens next.”

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