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W.C. Smith, contractors at odds

(Published May 7, 2001)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Special to The Common Denominator


Many Phase I homes in the Oxon Creek development have already been sold and are inhabited.

William Lockridge was the noisiest man at the recent announcement of a deal to build mixed-income residences on the site of the old Camp Simms National Guard post in far Southeast Washington.

Calling it "economic genocide," he angrily denounced the selection May 2 of William C. Smith and Co. and Mid-City Urban to develop the site, instead of a team led by a local African-American developer, Kevin Williams.

"Money has to stay in this community – it can’t keep floating out," declared the activist and District VI school board member, as Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other officials looked on.

But while Lockridge spoke out against the new Camp Simms development team, he was no doubt also thinking about another William C. Smith development just down the road: the Townhomes at Oxon Creek.

Two years ago, Lockridge and a group he helped found – the Washington Metropolitan Minority Contractors Association – struck a deal with Smith to provide work for minority contractors from Wards 7 and 8 on the Oxon Creek project, which fronts on Mississippi Avenue SE. But that deal broke down: Smith ended the deal halfway through the project. And the result is a backlog of anger at the big D.C.-based company that has recently gotten into the development business.

Lockridge said his group, founded in 1998, had already worked successfully on two big construction projects. That year they partnered with H.R. Crawford Co. on the Walter Washington Estates project, winning $6 million of $17 million in contracts and securing 35 percent of jobs for local companies.

"We focused on areas where local companies were strong – landscaping, painting, drywall, electrical – and were able to produce a lot of jobs for the community," Lockridge said.

The group was able to strike a similar deal at Willow Creek, a re-development of the old Valley Green public housing complex on Wheeler Road SE.

Both agreements were carried through to completion, Lockridge said: "On Walter Washington, everybody finished except for one."

And the Oxon Creek partnership with Smith started off well, too, he said. Oxon Creek is currently not only the biggest residential construction project in Southeast, but in all of the District. Phase I was finished in December 2000; Phase II started in February of this year and is still in progress. When finished, the development will contain 210 moderate-income townhomes.

But problems soon developed. Lockridge acknowledges that the plumber hired through his group couldn’t finance the job adequately and had to leave the job.

But many of the problems, according to participants, originated with the W.C. Smith company. Oxon Creek was the first construction job for a company known for its expertise in property management, not building.

"They didn’t know what they were doing," said one contractor who was not a part of Lockridge’s group. "Instead of them telling you what they wanted you to do, you’d have to write up your own scope of work – because they didn’t know what they wanted," he said. "And then you’d do it and they’d say, ‘That’s not what we want.’"

Lockridge leveled a similar charge. "They started this offshoot to do the job in-house, and it was just poorly managed," he said. "It was never clear whose responsibility it was to do what, and that affected the delivery of services by the contractors."

There was also a problem in getting paid, according to Lockridge and other contractors.

Ted Pendell, hired to install security equipment and telephone lines, said he installed high-tech security systems worth $8,500 in four model homes, with the provision that he would be paid for the equipment if the model homes were later sold with his equipment in them. He said that Smith sold all four homes, but has paid him nothing.

According to Pendell, who was not a member of the Lockridge group, Smith fired him after another billing dispute, in spite of his having, he said, a contract with Smith for both phases of the work at Oxon Creek. He claims to have lost $200,000 and said he is contemplating legal action against Smith.

When Phase I ended last December, Smith the developer took Smith the builder off the job. "They took a cold-hearted look at their performance, and decided to go outside the company for Phase II," said one observer who worked on Phase I.

Beazer Homes is handling the construction of the project’s home stretch.

But Smith also made a change that caught Lockridge and his contractors by surprise: the company dismissed the entire group of Ward 7 and 8 contractors who had worked on the project’s first phase. In fact, according to Lockridge, the local minority contractors were not even invited to bid on Phase II.

One contractor, Robert McQueen of Robert’s Pest Control, said he had a signed contract for both construction phases but was dropped after Phase I anyway. "They still owe me $13,000," he said.

"I don’t have the slightest idea why Smith dropped the group," Lockridge said. "We met with [company CEO] Chris Smith after Phase I at the offices of Councilwoman Sandy Allen. And Smith said he would call us about bidding on Phase II, as we had agreed." But, he said Smith never called.

Mickey Curro, vice president of William C. Smith Construction, said "performance was an issue" with some of the contractors who were dropped. But he said he asked Lockridge to provide him with a list of local contractors from which future hires might be made.

Lockridge said he saw that as an attempt to avoid dealing with his contractors as a group. "We have decided that we work together as a team, and they know that," he said. "I am not going to send him a list so he can go to members one on one. If they are serious about honoring the agreement, all they have to do is send us the bid dates."

And there matters stand today.

"We’ve had a very good level of minority participation in our company," said Curro. "Forty percent of the senior management of the company are minorities."

Curro also said his company "take(s) our responsibilities in the community seriously."

Lockridge said a recent visit to the Oxon Creek construction site makes him question that assertion.

"When the city and the federal government spend their tax dollars here, it’s to help this community develop and grow, to provide jobs and economic growth for this community," he said.

But when he visited the Oxon Creek site at the end of last month, he said "there were only maybe two Afro-Americans on the whole site. ... I saw Maryland and Virginia license plates on those contractors’ trucks. But I didn’t see any plates from D.C."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator