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Roxbury residents hope for local jobs on Dudley Square building project

Posted by Your Town  December 22, 2011 09:02 AM

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In 1922, when residents of Roxbury wanted to bury a time capsule, they chose what was then one of the most important buildings of the neighborhood, the Ferdinand Building, which at the time was a bustling department store and a symbol of the area’s economic vitality.

But the building has sat at the corner of Washington and Warren streets, empty and in disrepair, for over 30 years. City officials have been planning to renovate the building and create space for government offices for several years. Business owners and city officials alike have touted the move as “a long time coming.” But Roxbury resident Kerrick Johnson disagrees.

“I fear that the construction of the building itself could have a devastating impact on local business community by driving out existing entrepreneurs. So it becomes a large step toward gentrification and racial displacement,” said Johnson, head of the Roxbury Builders Guild, a coalition of construction workers in the neighborhood. “I’m extremely concerned about their ability to hire minority contractors.”

Hiring for minorities and women has become a hot-button issue in Roxbury, where many residents of the predominantly black community are voicing their suspicions that construction jobs for the upcoming redevelopment of the former Ferdinand building in Dudley Square, now known as the Dudley Municipal Building, will not provide jobs for minorities or people of the neighborhood. At an estimated construction cost of $70 million, the building will be one of the most expensive in the area. The offices are supposed to bring an additional 500 workers to Dudley Square each day after it is finished in 2014.

According to Brooke Woodson, the director of the Small and Local Business Enterprise office with the city of Boston, the construction managers for the project have yet to be chosen. Once the construction firm is chosen at the beginning of next year, they will hire various sub-contractors for specific trades such as flooring or plumbing, in addition to their own workforce.

The construction firm that is hired will have to follow the current city ordinance known as the Boston Residence Jobs Policy, which states that private building contractors for public projects are required to hire 50 percent local residents, 25 percent minorities and 10 percent women.

Shelley Webster, the owner of Centaur Construction Services, was at the meeting and hopes to be one of the sub-contractors working on the building. Most of her workforce, comprised of 10 to 15 people, is from Roxbury or Dorchester.

Webster has worked in construction for 30 years and, as a woman, she’s outnumbered: according to the National Association of Women in Construction, only 9 percent of construction workers are women. But she believes the hiring of minorities and women has improved on city projects.

“If you cannot prove that you’ve made every effort to fill a seat with a local resident, minority, or even female, you really have to document why that hasn’t happened,” she said.

But at a town hall meeting about the project earlier this fall, two local unemployed African-American women construction workers told the crowd they felt that the rule was unhelpful, and Johnson agrees.

“It’s completely inadequate,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “Boston is a majority-minority city, and the working class is probably more minority than the overall city. If you’re doing something less than 60 percent minority, you’re actually creating and affirmative action environment for white folks.”

But state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, the lead sponsor for the bill An Act to Create Equitable Job Access, is attempting to increase transparency in the hiring process. Currently, laws don’t allow any fines or repercussions for contractors that don’t follow the ordinance. This bill would not change that, it would create a website where residents could see statistics on race, gender, and residency of the people hired for any state contracts, including construction projects.

The aim of the bill is that with the increased transparency, contractors will be more likely to follow the ordinance, and if they don’t public scrutiny will force them out of their next contracted jobs.

“For unemployed tradesmen or women in Roxbury and Dorchester, there is no worse feeling than watching a multi-million dollar construction project being built in your own neighborhood and noticing that all the workers have New Hampshire license plates. If Massachusetts taxpayer dollars are being spent on Massachusetts state contracts, it’s important that our residents share the employment and wealth creation benefits these contracts create—especially for projects taking place in communities hardest hit by unemployment and poverty,” said Chang-Díaz in a statement. “This bill is about giving more people a fair shot at being part of our state’s economic development goals.”

According the Boston Indicators Project, in 2008 in Boston, the unemployment rate for African-Americans and Latinos was 11 percent, compared to 5.5 percent for Asians and whites. The Boston Residence Jobs Policy is an attempt to fix this imbalance, while making sure Boston citizens are the ones getting the jobs in Boston.

“You take into account the fact that people commute, you know, live in one place work in another place, they may continue to spend their earnings and have a multiplier effect elsewhere, but you’ll find that the numbers are pretty small. It takes a really large movement of jobs to make an impact on a community,” said Peter Doeringer, a professor of labor economics at Boston University, who believes that the movement of 500 jobs will not have a large impact on the economy of the neighborhood in the long run.

Jenaya Nelson has worked as a laborer in construction for 13 years – oftentimes one of few women in an industry dominated by men.

“The problem is that they don’t hire women. They say we don’t exist,” she said. “But we’re out there. We do exist.”

In her time in the field, she has seen the ups and downs of the economy take their toll on many of the women working in the field.

“In the late ’90s there were a lot of jobs,” Nelson said. “But after the Big Dig, work dropped for many women. Now after two to three years of being unemployed, a lot of them are leaving the field.”

Now, as the chairwoman of the Massachusetts Tradeswomen Association, Nelson is attempting to stir up support for An Act to Create Equitable Job Access, which is currently in committee at the state house.

But for now, Roxbury residents are focused on the construction of the building. At the fall meeting, residents filled the community center, many of them standing at the back of the room after all the seats were filled, wanting to know when there would be jobs available for them. Members of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Dudley Advisory Task Force – a group comprising Roxbury citizens that “provide community perspective” on the project – had to assure the residents that construction job openings for the Municipal Building would be announced soon, just not on that day.

As the new headquarters of the Boston Public Schools, the Dudley Municipal Building will replace BPS’s downtown offices, in addition to several city of Boston programs, including a resource center and Read and Write Boston. The building is just one part of the city’s Dudley Vision project, which also includes upgrades for the B-2 police station and two parcels of land on Melina Cass Boulevard.

There will also be retail shops on the first floor of the building. Although choosing a retailer to fill the space will not be done for quite some time. According to designs by Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass., the architects of the building, these retailers could be anything from a coffee shop to a pharmacy.

Johnson believes that these retail shops, and the BPS employees who will be their main customers, will lead to further gentrification in the area.

“The 500 people with no investment in the neighborhood are more likely to attract different entrepreneurs, which is going to start pricing our guys out of the market. So when the Starbucks comes in, Haley House closes,” he said, referencing a local restaurant with strong community ties.

However, Haley House business marketing manager Bing Broderick said that he was looking forward to the new building.

“I think bringing jobs to Dudley Square will help the whole community,” Broderick stated.

In addition, Joe Mulligan, the deputy director for Capital Construction with the city of Boston, said that there is a high likelihood that these retail spaces will be operated by local businesses and that they will provide some additional job opportunities for residents, outside of the several hundred temporary construction jobs, especially for something more permanent.

“When construction is done everyone gets in their cars and they leave,” said Mulligan. “But there are permanent opportunities in that facility, whether through retail, security and management of the building, and through Boston Public School systems.”

And although An Act to Create Equitable Job Access most likely will not be passed before the construction firm is chosen, Mulligan hopes to exceed the 50-25-10 goals anyway, saying: “We exceeded them at the B-2 police station, and we’re going to try to do even better on this project.”

“We look forward to getting as many local residents employed on it as possible,” said Woodson, of the Small and Local Business Enterprise Office. “It’s a project that’s been a long time coming, but under the leadership of the mayor it’s going forward and we just have to work with the community to make sure that it gets the benefits of the project.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Journalism Professor Dan Kennedy, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern University.

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