Fight Erupts Over Minority Contracts 

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A battle about who represents minority contractors in the Miller & Rhoads hotel project is turning unusually hostile.

It's a street fight played out in press releases and e-mail blasts. In one corner there's Al Bowers Jr., owner of BFE Consulting. His company acts as minority business consultant to big construction contractors.

In the other corner is the city's Office of Minority Business Development, which is charged with doing pretty much the same thing.

Both sides say they're responsible for pre-qualifying minority contractors to work on the $95 million Miller & Rhoads project. (Developers plan to turn the old department store into a Hilton, with condos on the upper floors.)

Minority contractors are becoming unsure of who to contact about work.

Bowers sent an e-mail to the minority contractors he works with July 20 stating that his firm was handling the project. The city responded the next day by issuing a tersely worded press release with the headline, "BFE Consultants Not Involved as Intermediary for Contractors Interested in the Hilton Hotel Project."

Bowers was floored. "I think their reaction is petty and it is not of importance to me," he says defiantly, vowing to continue working on the project unabated.

Bowers says he has a contract with Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., the general construction manager on the project, which asked him to send out the e-mail last week.

Dan Niccolucci, vice president and manager of Whiting-Turner's Richmond office, says Bowers indeed has a "written agreement" stating that BFE is to serve as the hotel project's minority business administrator to "assist in pre-qualifying subs and vendors on the project, in addition to providing monthly reports on their progress."

In the city's press release, however, Niccolucci is quoted as saying, "No third-party intermediaries are involved in our service agreement with the city."

Niccolucci didn't authorize that quote, he says: "That was not my authorized e-mail to the city."

Linwood Norman, the mayor's press secretary, insists there is no contract between BFE and Whiting-Turner. In the press release, Rita Henderson, director of the city's minority business office, states that "Mr. Bowers does not represent the City's interests in this or any other matter involving our goals to encourage minority business growth." Henderson then references a lawsuit filed by "Mr. Bowers" against the city.

The lawsuit was filed by Premiere Homes LLC, which is owned by Bowers' son, Al Bowers III. In it, Premiere charges that the city failed to pay $273,800 for new streetlights it put up in the new Randolph West subdivision off Lombardy Street. (The city has filed a counter lawsuit; the case is pending.)

That lawsuit has led to the fight over the Hilton project, some sources familiar with the situation say.

"The city has no further comment," Norman says.

Bowers says he doesn't mind a scrape with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. "It's not that we have an issue with placating Wilder. We just don't consider it a challenge," Bowers says. "They are not going to railroad us." S

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