A few days ago, I was chatting with former Charlotte Councilman Ron Leeper about the prospects of the Democratic National Convention being a financial jackpot for local businesses – and minority firms in particular.
For Leeper, a commercial builder, the question was loaded. Last month, his company lost in its bid to overhaul Time Warner Cable Arena and the Charlotte Convention Center.
Leeper, among the city’s largest African American builders, figured he had a solid shot at the contract, which is relatively small in dollars yet huge in symbolism.
In the bid, Leeper’s firm, which generates $15 to $20 million in revenues, had partnered with the Denver-based design firm Populous and building industry powerhouse Turner Construction, which had won previous DNC convention contracts in Denver and Chicago.
“The company has done the last two DNCs and did them well, so I thought it was good bet,” Leeper said.
Also on the team was Charlotte-based architectural firm Neighboring Concepts, owned by Darrel Williams, an African American and former Mecklenburg County commissioner.
Not good enough.
Charlotte’s convention officials awarded the work to Charlotte construction kingpin Rodgers Builders, Arizona-based Hunts Construction Group, and H.J. Russell inAtlanta, a large African American-owned construction company. The DNC ended up selecting Populous and Neighboring as the architects, and paired them with the selected firms.
“I was on the wrong team,” Leeper said, wryly. “Of course, I was disappointed. But I’ve gone after many contracts have haven’t been selected.”
Leeper is known around town for his level head, Christian faith, and civic involvement. Surely, a lot of his clout is rooted in his decade as a councilman, but he’s also gained respect for the legions of urban youths he has touched through various non-profits.
And then there’s his generous donations to Foxx and other local Democrats. During Anthony Foxx’s first mayoral run, Leeper contributed the $4,000 maximum, and put some cash in Foxx’s coffers in this latest re-election run. “This second time, I wasn’t so eager,” Leeper admits. “Plus, he already had a big pot.”
Leeper emphasizes that Foxx and Co. owe him nothing in return for any financial support, but he also says: “You’d think it would help.”
He adds: “I consider myself to be a good Democrat. I spent 10 years on city council and have contributed to every major Democratic candidate who was consistent with my views.”
So, while Leeper doesn’t want to sound bitter over losing the DNC construction bid, he also makes it clear that this so-called “Peoples’ Convention” could end up disappointing many of the business people who, like himself, make up the fabric of this community.
“The die seems to have been cast,” he said. “If local was important, that was probably a missed opportunity for ethnic minorities.”
And frankly, it irks Leeper that the DNC chose H.R. Russell ofAtlanta, which boasts around $300 million in annual revenues.
“It certainly doesn’t meet the local test,” he says. “… They don’t contribute to the community. They have no office in
Charlotte. And they see no need to set up an office here because they’ll get the minority piece because they are the big dog in the fight.”
The irony isn’t missed on Leeper – and he’s figures he’s hardly alone.
“This isn’t just about me,” he says. “The fact that we have a black mayor and five African Americans on city council – does that really make a difference in my life? Why should I care? I mean, at the end of the day, how are blacks and other minorities benefiting from it?”
Post Script: Ron Leeper contacted me to take issue with the tone of my column. He said that my depiction of his loss to construction companies Rodgers, Hunt and Russell inaccurately portrayed him as harboring “sour grapes.” He also credited the DNC for awarding part of the work to black-owned contractor, Herman J. Russell of Atlanta.