By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
Bidders have claimed that the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Aviation Administration (MDOT MAA) request for proposal (RFP) to manage concessions at BWI Marshall Airport (BWI) is rigged.
Last spring, MDOT MAA issued an RFP to determine who should operate the retail, restaurant and commercial services for the airport. The new contract would run for 20 years and is expected to generate an estimated $100 million.
In November, the MAA recommended that New Market Development, a local, Black-founded company, be chosen by the Maryland Board of Public Works for the contract. But before Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck E. Davis could vote on it, the procurement process was halted.
Some companies are alleging that the process has unfairly favored New Market Development, which was created recently by longtime local business and political leader Major Riddick. Others maintain that this is an attempt to prevent minorities from obtaining a lucrative contract in a predominantly-White industry.
“As was communicated to the bidding teams, in light of legal concerns raised by the Office of the Attorney General, the Maryland Department of Transportation is seeking additional clarifications about the Maryland Aviation Administration’s solicitation for a new concessionaire,” said Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation. “The contract will not be scheduled for the Board of Public Works at this time.”
In 2019, BWI saw more than 70,000 travelers come through its airport, and concessions had its most profitable year. A common measure used to determine performance in the concessionaire industry is concession sales per enplaned passenger.
Concession sales per enplaned passenger was $9.21, and the program racked up $158 million in total sales, according to the RFP.
Although the program’s profits took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, concessions sales per enplaned passenger still climbed to $10.92 in 2020, according to the RFP.
During the bidding process, the RFP was amended two times, which has been the leading cause for concern.
Previously, the MAA required that bidders be in business for seven years, but the administration changed this, allowing newer companies operated by executives who have been in the concessionaire industry for at least seven years to apply for the contract. New Market Development, which was founded in 2021, would not have been able to compete without such a provision.
The MAA also required that contractors arrange their minority subcontractors before they submitted their proposals, which it has not done in the past.
According to one source, any discrepancy regarding the amendments can be resolved by the MAA’s publicly-available questions and answers that led to the RFP’s alterations.
The source asked the AFRO for anonymity because the MAA does not allow bidders and stakeholders to publicly comment on the procurement process before the bidding process is over.
The source viewed the procurement process as fair and comprehensive and found it ironic that other bidders, who are multinational conglomerates, are claiming that a small, minority-owned firm is using political resources to manipulate a state contract.
Prince George’s County Council at-large member Mel Franklin has known Riddick for over two decades, and noted Riddick’s reputation as a savvy operator in business and government throughout the state.
Franklin said he believes the controversy reflects the challenge that Black businesses face when trying to advance in an industry that’s been historically White-run.
“When those rules are changed to open the doors of opportunity, people raise issues that really aren’t issues, but they’re designed to keep those doors shut to African-American businesses, and I think that’s the obstacle that’s been put in the way of Major’s company,” said Franklin. “I think it’s unfortunate, and I think the state should move forward with their recommendation and not listen to those who are just seeking to keep those doors of opportunity closed to an African-American business owner who is trying to break into a space where we just haven’t had Black and Brown business opportunities.”
Riddick has been primarily criticized for his political connections in the state. From 1995 to 2001, he served as chief of staff for former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Before that, he had several political stints in Prince George’s County, including acting as chief administrative officer, directing the Office of Management and Budget and leading the county’s housing authority.
Franklin said that having valuable relationships is inherent in doing business, and when White-owned companies have these connections, they are not deemed unethical. It could be argued that those relationships are necessary to excel in business, politics and government, according to Franklin.
“Oftentimes when you are breaking down the barriers to opportunity for African-American businesses, people who have had and do have an overabundance of opportunity will come up with reasons why we should still say no to opening the doors of opportunity to those of us who haven’t had that opportunity, and I think that’s what’s going on,” said Franklin. “I think a state as progressive as Maryland should recognize that, and if we don’t open the doors of opportunity to African-American business owners, we’re not nearly as progressive as we think.”
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