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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: May 10, 2009
Byline: Robert Hightower

Heated debate on President's House work

Tempers flared at a meeting on Thursday between officials representing the President's House commemoration and local minority contractors trying to get a piece of the work scheduled to take place on the 6th and Market streets site later this month.

The meeting, held at Community College of Philadelphia, was supposed to bolster minority inclusion when construction begins.

However, many of the contractors, all of whom were African-American, engaged in a shouting match predicated on their disapproval of construction firm D.J. Keating Co., owned by Daniel Keating III, who is white, being awarded the building contract and their feelings on not having a fair chance at obtaining the contract.

The SkillsBank Builder Association owner, who requested that he be called Shaka, said he thought the meeting would have a different outcome.

"I expected economic contractual opportunities to come out this meeting. But when I got here, I saw something else," Shaka said.

Shaka went on to say he wanted to be included in the project for cultural reasons.

"Just like you don't have Jews building Muslim masques or you don't have Muslims building Jewish synagogues, we're not going to have white folks come in here and build monuments to the holocaust of enslavement for our people. That's not going to happen on our watch," he said.

In the middle of the meeting, after listening to an overwhelming amount of heated demands from the contractors to give up the contract, Keating stated he would comply with their wishes and step away from the project before storming out.

Keating declined further comment.

However, architect Emanuel Kelly of Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, the firm selected to design the structure, said he would not break the contract with Keating and because of the existing contract, Keating could not just refuse to work.

Kelly stated he wasn't she sure about how the meeting went.

"A lot people wanted to vent about the Convention Center and some in the terms of being frustrated about the lack of opportunities. That's understandable," he said. "In this job, we were looking primarily to see if there are subcontractors out there that we can include them."

Local attorney and co-founder of the activist organization Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) Michael Coard, who is on the President's House Oversight Committee, has been instrumental in helping to ensure inclusion in the building process.

Coard said he felt the meeting "went great."

"Folks were angry and should have been angry," he said. "I threw out some statistics early on which are shocking when you figure that we make up half the population but get less than one percent of the construction revenues in the city. Something's wrong with that."

The fact that so many contractors voiced their opinions worked to promote Coard's strategy.

"I wanted the powers that be to see that the natives are restless and the natives are restless," he said. "It reminded me of we're mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore."

Coard added that although the contractors were spirited in their banter, they must look at the bigger picture.

"We got to make sure that in our anger, we're focused and we're reasonable," said Coard. "If you're at war on the battlefield and you're shooting at the enemy and he is shooting at you, you don't jump up and run to him and start swinging a baseball bat. You'll get your head blown off. You sit back in your foxhole. You strategize, you plan, you scheme, and then you go out."

Project manager Roz McPherson explained the purpose of the meeting.

"We promised in December of 2007 that when we got ready to start on the actual construction phase that we would host an information session like this that would enable people to know what the particulars of the project are and we would describe the types of employment opportunities that would be available," she said.

Mayor Michael Nutter's chief of staff Clay Armbrister was on hand for the meeting and said he wanted doors opened for the contractors.

"I'm hopeful that it begins a discussion. The ultimate goal is to get people work," he said. "This isn't about trying to do something. We're here to do it."

The President's House was inhabited by Presidents George Washington and John Adams and as many as nine slaves owned by Washington.

Adams did not own slaves.

 

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