Convention center renovation sticks to its promises
The recently completed $40 million renovation of the Oregon Convention Center hasn't just resulted in a new look from the event center. It's also set the bar for how contracting on public projects can be structured to create a fair playing field that supports diversity and inclusion.
That was the message shared by speakers during a Monday, Oct. 21, event to recognize the finish of the year-long project, which resulted in updates to both the interior and exterior of the 30-year-old building on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Portland's eastside.
With Colas Construction onboard as general contractor, along with project partner Raimore Construction, the project set records both for the largest public contract in the state awarded to a minority-owned company as a prime contractor and the percentage of small emerging businesses and women-, minority- and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses awarded contracts on a public project.
"It sets the bar and the standards higher for other agencies."
The renovation, which began in fall 2018, was broken into three phases. The first and second phases focused on new carpeting, wall treatments and signage featuring color schemes and materials that pay tribute to the elements of nature that define Oregon. The final phase focused on the Oregon Ballroom, named in honor of former Portland Mayor Bud Clark, and an associated pre-event area. The ballroom features state-of-the-art acoustics and lighting as well as a ceiling treatment designed to call to mind a forest canopy. The pre-event space also features a unique ceiling treatment – a topographical representation of the Cascade Mountain range.
LMN Architects of Seattle handled design duties for the interior renovation. Portland's Mayer/Reed was responsible for the exterior design. While Colas served as the overall lead contractor, exterior renovation work that included a new entry canopy and a revamped north plaza outfitted with an amphitheater-like area was handled by Raimore.
A fair process
In selecting a general contractor for the project, regional government entity Metro and the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission took a different approach from the traditional public procurement process. Normally, on large-scale convention center projects, owners look for companies with a deep well on previous experience on projects in the same vein. That usually narrows the field down to large national players.
For the Oregon Convention Center renovation, however, the public agencies were more interested in finding companies with previous experience that would make them a good fit for the project. Among the experience sought was a background working in areas with a high amount of public access that required minimizing noise, dust and disruption. That opened up an opportunity for Colas. Although the company had never worked on convention centers, it had handled projects with similar requirements, including major work at Portland International Airport, Andrew Colas, chief operating officer and president of the company, told the Business Tribune.
"They didn't limit the playing field by creating barriers to overcome," Colas said.
Colas Construction, working side-by-side with Raimore, created a proposal and went through rigorous interviews before being selected for the $40 million project. "We weren't handed this project," Colas told the crowd gathered for a formal unveiling of the renovated building. "We won the project through a fair process. That fair process now sets the standard for all other agencies."
At the time it was awarded to Colas Construction, the renovation project represented the largest public contract ever awarded in Oregon to a minority company as a prime contractor. Raimore Construction, however, is now on track to break that record. Last year, the African American-owned company won a $395,000 contract for pre-services for TriMet's Division Street Project. That award that places Raimore in a strong position to also win the construction portion of the project, a contract expected to run between $60 million and $65 million.
Colas said he's perfectly fine with handing the "largest contract" title over to Raimore Construction. "We want someone to come after Raimore and get the biggest contract (ever awarded to a minority-contractor) .. and someone after that," Colas said.
The convention center renovation project also made good on a decades-old, unfilled promise that dates back to the beginning of the facility. At the time, minority contractors were told a special effort would be made to provide contracts and positions to minority construction companies and workers.
Those promises were never upheld — until now.
As part of an effort to support diversity and inclusion on the recent renovation, Metro and MERC set a goal of having 30% of work on the project be handled by companies registered with Oregon's Certification Office of Business Inclusion and Diversity. The designation applies to emerging small businesses and women-, minority- and service-disabled veteran-owned companies.
By tapping relationships they've built for years, Colas and Raimore were able to exceed that goal, hitting 50% participation by COBID-registered firms.
The project also set a new bar for employing minorities and women in the trades. Among those workers was Tamiko Lawrence, a black journeyman electrician with Affordable Electric. A former 25-year employee of Popeye's Chicken, Lawrence learned about the electrician's apprenticeship program six years ago after her son expressed interest in the career path. Her son decided against becoming an electrician, but Lawrence journeyed out in December of last year.
Although she's worked on projects such as the Kelly Butte reservoir and Gleason Commons, being involved in the convention center renovation has been a highlight for her. "It's just amazing," Lawrence said. "Before, I never would have thought I would ever work on a project like this. I was 40 when I (entered construction), and I tell everyone it's never too late to get started."
The convention center achievements show what's possible when a public agency commits to turning diversity and inclusion policies into real action, according to Nate McCoy, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors. "It sets the bar and the standards higher for other agencies," McCoy said.
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