Small contractors make big gains working on Detroit’s M-1 Rail project

Laura Berman

In her hard hat and chartreuse neon vest, Tiffany Hart is at ease supervising a crew of traffic flaggers amid chaotic Woodward Avenue traffic. As she should be: She’s the CEO of an asphalting firm with a million-dollar contract on the M-1 Rail project.

Five years ago, she zigzagged from a nonprofit, white-collar career to launch Hart & Associates. That first year, the fledgling firm eked out $9,000 in revenue. “It’s been a total career change for me,” says Hart, who left a career in grant-writing and nonprofit consulting to help her husband, Fred, a career road-worker, live out his entrepreneurial dream.

Today, the Harts and their team embody the idea that the people working on the new streetcar line also mirror the faces of Detroit’s people — and offer proof that new investment in the city can bring employment and opportunity to residents who have stuck out the hard times. Hart’s firm pays union wages: $22 an hour and up.

Meanwhile, she and other contractors are benefiting from a decision by the M-1 Rail board of directors: A goal of hiring at least 25 percent of the project contractors and workers from nontraditional categories, including women, minorities and Detroit-based firms. “We are trying to spread the wealth,” says Sommer Woods, M-1 Rail’s director of external relations, who has led recruiting efforts.

In real terms, that means the public-private partnership is exceeding federal government requirements for “disadvantaged business” hiring, typically 11 percent. To boost its numbers, the rail project created bite-sized jobs for small and mid-sized companies that ordinarily couldn’t compete with the traditional, large contracting firms that win transit contracts. It also required a commitment from the general contractor, Stacy and Witbeck — one of the nation’s largest transportation contractors — to participate in that decision.

While anything that smacks of “affirmative action” is controversial, the M-1 Rail board views its hiring decision as good business. “We look at it as the best value for the community, because when Detroiters see everybody working on this project, it makes a difference to them,” says Woods. “We are using very qualified people. This isn’t ‘check the box.’ These aren’t so-called pass-through companies. These are people who have been here, stayed here in the trenches, who are certified.”

Mike Farrow, whose Detroit demolition firm is tearing up and hauling away old asphalt, brick and rail line, has waited 15 years for an opportunity like this one. Shut out of Detroit city business during the Kwame Kilpatrick days — when Kilpartrick’s pal Bobby Ferguson was a competitor — he describes the contract as “an awesome thing.”

“It’s something that doesn’t happen in Detroit or Michigan. It’s definitely a new beginning for me,” says Farrow, who almost moved out of state during the worst part of the recession. He salutes what he sees as a serious commitment to hiring Detroit contractors.

For Tiffany Hart, the contract is a stamp of competency that will enable her to continue building her company. But it hasn’t been easy getting this far.

Hart trained hard once she made the switch in 2009, getting a builder’s license, certification in lead abatement, expertise in asphalt paving and other professional development as the fledgling company grew. Fred Hart, who has a 49 percent stake in the business, is the foreman on the project.

In a largely male world, there’s reluctance to embrace the newcomer. But Tiffany Hart, who has a degree from Michigan State University and post-grad studies in public health, wasn’t naive. “It’s a very close-knit community,” she says, “and you’re not going to have them roll out any red carpet for you.” She is, she believes, the only “black woman asphalt paver in Michigan.”

Managing growth is bringing its own challenges, she’s found. Because the M-1 contracts have tripled her revenue, she’s now struggling to find a bank that will bond the firm’s contracts. There are barriers to success she’s actively working to solve every day.

The project’s commitment to small, minority and Detroit-based contractors is significant — $40 million in all. And it’s likely to cost the partnership more to use these smaller firms than hiring a few big ones. “We knew we’d have to absorb some extra costs,” says Woods, at M-1 Rail. “But we see this as best value for the community.” The philanthropies and businesspeople backing the project are creating promised jobs, even as they repave Woodward, partly in asphalt and partly in goodwill.

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