Out of desolation, the light appears. Arguably the most important project that Mayor Dwight Jones will undertake during his first term in office -- the construction of the new $134.6 million city jail -- just might be this administration’s defining moment.
And it illustrates the growing gap between the image Jones’ projects as the measured, grow-by-design-and-not-default mayor and, well, reality.
In one fell swoop, his announcement this week that his administration had selected Tompkins Builders and S.B. Construction Co. out of Washington, D.C., to build the jail has upset one of the city’s biggest minority developers and the state NAACP, and raised questions about familial relations with the jail project’s minority contractor, Thomas Davis, whose father is building Jones’ new church in Chesterfield County. The morning of the announcement, the Richmond Free Press published a story lambasting Tompkins Builders for having a “horrible record” when it comes to minority inclusion.
That’s a full plate of political drama, and the public vetting has barely started. City Council is expected to begin perusing the winning bid, along with the three other vendors who made the final cut, next week. Jones asked City Council to approve his choice of Tompkins/Ballard by July 25, in order to issue an official agreement with the contractors to begin construction by December.
Amid the fracas is the revelation that Jones’ church, First Baptist Church of South Richmond, is building a 2,000-seat sanctuary off Route 10 in Chesterfield County. The contractor that has been hired to build the church, which is still in the planning stages, is Davis Brothers, which is owned by Langston Davis, father of Thomas Davis, the minority contractor on the jail project.
After the meeting, Thomas Davis told Style that he had nothing to do with the project. He says the church’s board of trustees asked him to bid on the new sanctuary, but he declined. “I don’t really know the mayor,” he says, “but my dad does.”
Jones, meanwhile, declines to discuss church matters. His press secretary, Tammy Hawley, informed Style that questions about the church were off limits after the jail announcement on Thursday. (These questions are usually met with bewildered looks from Hawley. Why would anyone ask about the church?).
Aside from the obvious constitutional objective of separating church and state, one might wonder if Jones is fully committed to the city as mayor if he’s also full-time pastor at the church, and running the day-to-day operations. Secondly, there may be, at some point -- such as Thursday’s jail announcement -- possible conflicts of interest. Say, a contractor participating in the city’s biggest construction project in more than a decade whose father happens to be building the mayor’s new church.
Jones, of course, doesn’t see any reason that he would ever need to answer such questions. In an interview with Style in early February, with Hawley at his side, he almost offered an explanation of sorts. An excerpt:
Style: Are you also the full time pastor of First Baptist Church?
Mayor Jones: I’m a full time mayor of Richmond.
Hawley (speaking to Jones): Isn’t it fair to say your son is the primary pastor of the church?
Jones: Yeah, but you know, if you start, you’ve got to finish. So if you get into it … because people don’t understand the culture of churches and they really don’t understand the culture of black churches. So you don’t even talk about it.
Talk about that with reporters? Because it’s clearly apart of who you are.
Hawley: That’s not a part of his role as mayor, that’s what he’s saying. He’s happy to talk about his role as mayor.
Jones (speaking to reporter): If you have something you want to talk to me [about], if you want to confide in me, or talk about your religious issues. I’ll be happy to talk about you off the dime, on my free time some other time.
In the interview, the mayor seems to be in agreement with Hawley’s description that he’s no longer the “primary” pastor, although what that means exactly is unclear. On the church’s website, he’s prominently displayed as “senior pastor” of the church, ahead of son, Derik, who is listed as the pastor. The sign announcing the “Future Site of First Baptist Church of South Richmond” on Route 10 in Chesterfield also lists Mayor Jones ahead of his son. The hierarchy is clear in the church’s public literature.
Flash back to the jail announcement Thursday. At the time, Style had yet to confirm that Davis Brothers was the general contractor for the new church in Chesterfield. So the question we weren’t allowed to ask had to do with something admittedly broader. In other words, Jones certainly had no trouble talking about the church while running for mayor in 2008, and often pointed out that he was the only candidate who had engaged in any kind of tangible economic development within the city -- namely, the role his church and its nonprofit development arm, the Imani Intergenerational Community Development Corp., played in redeveloping Hull Street in Manchester. On April 16, 2008, the day he announced his campaign for mayor, Jones proudly proclaimed: “I am the only candidate that is running that has contributed to the economic development in the city by developing apartments and commercial space in the Hull Street corridor.”
But on Thursday, the church was off limits. Why would Richmond’s mayor build the new church in Chesterfield? Yes, the old church will remain on Hull Street, according to the church website, but didn’t Jones once tout the spiritual, social and economic benefits of church-based development in the inner city?
“No comment,” Jones says.
And there are other questions about the jail proposal that may actually have a bigger impact. Particularly, upsetting Al Bowers, owner of Bowers Family Enterprises, who sued the city and former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder for allegedly attempting to boot minority contracting company from the Miller & Rhoads hotel project downtown. He’s one of the city’s largest minority contractors, and -- and this is rare in Richmond -- is unafraid to punch back publicly.
Bowers took a seat in the back of Council chambers during the announcement Thursday morning with King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state NAACP, sitting nearby. His company was part of the original team that made the first pitch to build the jail, for $117 million, in an unsolicited bid in February 2010.
Bowers says his team’s original bid was lower than the others, even after the city opened up the bidding and a second, more detailed round of proposals came in from competing contractors. Bowers questions whether the process was fair. During the presentation, the administration claimed that Tompkins/Ballard was the only bidder that came in under the $134.6 million projected budget, with a total bid of $123.1 million. After the meeting, neither city officials, nor George Kreis, senior vice president of Tompkins Builders, could confirm the total cost attached to the winning bid.
“I don’t know if I can tell you,” Kreis says. Chris Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer for the city, says the restraint is due to procurement law, which is complex, and the many steps involved in the bidding process. He did, however, concur (with agreeable nodding) that the $123.1 million figure is accurate.
The point, however, shouldn’t be lost: There are real questions that will need to be answered by the Jones administration regarding its decision to select Tompkins/Ballard as the winning contractor for the jail. And it may get ugly before it’s over.