Columbus Crew's Lower.com Field contracts opened new doors for Ohio minority- and women-owned firms

Erica Thompson
The Columbus Dispatch

As the leading commercial landscaping company in the nation, BrightView’s handiwork is hard to miss — especially if you’re in the business.

“I see them everywhere in Easton when I go shopping,” said Kathy Tatum, president of Tatum Landscaping in Westerville. “I was recently on vacation in Florida, and I’m looking outside of my villa, and there is BrightView, maintaining the resort!”

A short time later, Tatum was partnering with the billion-dollar business.

Kaitlyn Tatum of Tatum Landscaping poses for a portrait in front of the new Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio on June 11, 2021. Kaitlyn will be taking over the business from her mother Kathy Tatum, who currently manages the company. Tatum Landscaping are one of the several minority-owned and women-owned businesses that were awarded contracts to build the new stadium, the company has been working to install trees on the exterior walkways.

The opportunity came with the construction of the Columbus Crew’s new $313.9 million, 20,000-seat stadium Downtown. That project, and the construction of a new training facility at $34.2 million, were completed with the help of 54 minority-owned enterprises and 27 women-owned enterprises in central Ohio, throughout the state and beyond, according to an April 15 report by the Crew.

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A total of 117 contracts were awarded to minority- and women-owned contractors (79 minority-owned contracts, 38 women-owned contracts) amounting to over $74 million in spending, according to a May 15 report.

From the onset, the Crew owners, the city of Columbus and project leaders Turner Construction Co. and Corna Kokosing made a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Beyond the financial benefit, underrepresented companies are saying these efforts have given them something more valuable: access to key players in the industry.

“I couldn’t miss out on this opportunity,” Tatum said ofcontracting under BrightView to install 180, 17,000-pound trees at the stadium site. “We’ve already talked about other opportunities with Turner that we’re going to go after.”

Virgil Brown, from left, Andrew Bradley, CJ Bennett and Brandon Bennett of Tatum Landscaping adjust a tree they were planting in front of the new Lower.com Stadium in Columbus.

Certified as a minority business enterprise with both the city and state, Tatum Landscaping has worked on projects for the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority and Ohio State University. Tatum credits a mentor at Smoot Construction — another Black-owned company — with helping her transition from residential to commercial landscaping.

Further, attending the free Turner School of Construction Management for minority- and women-owned businesses was a game-changer, Tatum said.

“A lot of people don’t know about it, but this is like a gem in the city,” said Tatum, 57, who lives in Gahanna. “It taught me so much that I was missing in my field as far as estimating correctly. You can be good at your craft, but if you don't know that business side, the accounting side, the legal side and the safety side, you can fail.”

Nearing retirement, Tatum is now positioning her daughter, Katelyn Tatum, to take over the company in the near future. The 25-year-old project manager oversees the day-to-day operations and took the lead on the Crew job, which amounted to $1.7 million in collaboration with Brightview. 

“It’s a blessing, like — pinch me,” Katelyn said of the experience, especially partnering with BrightView. “Representation is so important. I’m just so happy that we’re able to work with so many people from different backgrounds.”

Tatum hired CJ's Trucking & Demolition, another minority-owned company, for the Crew project. She also acknowledged the impact the job had on her diverse workforce.

“It’s really changing their livelihood,” she said. “This is drastically going to impact some families’ lives. The more contracts I get at this level, the better it’s going to improve their household. I try to give back to my community by making a substantial living for the people in my community.”  

Top-down commitment to diversity

The Crew project's top-down commitment to diversity, beginning with owners Jimmie and Dee Haslam and Pete Edwards, is worthy of praise, said Peter Jean-Baptiste, senior vice president of communications at the Haslam Sports Group.

“The Haslams have a long history of making sure they’re inclusive in what they do,” said Jean-Baptiste, who also commended the vision of Mayor Andrew Ginther and the city's office of diversity and inclusion, now led by Damita Brown. “That's what a true public-private partnership is really all about. You’ve got be as inclusive as you can be. You’ve got to think about benefiting the entire community. And that was the mindset from the top.”

The same spirit of the Save the Crew movement can be seen on the business side, he said. 

"It's that unifying factor,” he said. “You see it every day when you look at a locker room and you see all these players from different communities and different backgrounds coming together for a common goal. It's just so crystal clear how beneficial it is to organizations and to a community when you have people that have diverse perspectives working together to make things happen.”

In 2019, a disparity study by Mason Tillman Associates, which found that Black men and women, in particular, were unsuccessful at gaining city contracts. Since then, Ginther has been intentional about representation.

Getting minority- and women-owned contractors on board wouldn't have happened without the project's diversity and inclusion consultant, Nancy Tidwell, who owns NRT & Associates.

“I really just can’t stop praising the job that Nancy did,” Jean-Baptiste said. 

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Back in the late '90s, Tidwell was hired to help recruit minority- and women-owned contractors on the Nationwide Arena project. She said they achieved autilization rate of about 17%, and that didn't even include construction management services and construction of the parking garage. 

After the venue opened in 2000, Nationwide executives, government officials and minority businesses celebrated at the King Arts Complex. 

“It was precedent-setting,” said Tidwell, 73. "Because it was so celebrated, we thought we would see that (diversity) continue to happen, but the industry didn't really repeat that very much. And we had a recession. A lot of people went out of business. It just hasn't been a lot of success until I worked on the Columbus Metropolitan Library projects.”

Nancy Tidwell, owner of NRT & Associates, is the diversity and inclusion consultant on the Crew stadium and training facility project.

Tidwell helped the library system exceed its diversity and inclusion goals on its 2020 Vision project, which included construction and renovation of multiple branches. 

Those past accomplishments informed the Crew project, Tidwell said. The city set a 30% utilization rate of MWBE contractors. Upon completion, it achieved 25% for the stadium and 34% for the training facility. 

The rate was admirable but really high, Tidwell said. There has to be a better support system to prepare minority- and women-owned contractors that have been excluded for so long. That means facilitating mentorship opportunities between prime and subcontractors, so the subcontractors eventually can become primes. 

“We have to do the work that creates that kind of growth,” she said.

Despite missing the utilization goal, the Crew project created many fruitful mentor-mentee partnerships. 

“(There were) so many stories about these prime contractors being willing to bring in these smaller groups so they could work on a big project like this and have this on their resume," Jean-Baptiste said. "You've got to pay it forward."

Tidwell also said more work has to be done to increase access to training and capital. In 2017, she launched a mobilization program for minority contractors at the Economic & Community Development Institute. And earlier this year, she started an incubator/accelerator program, which paired minority- and women-owned businesses with mentor companies. 

“It is really important to understand that establishing a goal is just not enough," she said. "We’ve got to do things to build our resources if we really, truly want to have inclusion.”

Overcoming stigma in the building of stadium

The growing success of 3C Industries—another subcontractor on the Crew project—was built on the type of mentorship encouraged by Tidwell and Jean-Baptiste. Derek Hairston is the CEO of the Urbana-based construction services company, and he credits entrepreneur Barry Couts as a major influence in his career.

Couts owns True Inspections Services, which is also based in Urbana. In addition to providing Hairston with work, Couts encouraged him to take advantage of MBE certification and other opportunities for minority-owned companies.

Tidwell has also been instrumental in this regard.

“There's actually a whole world out there you can tap into,” said Hairston, 32, who lives in Urbana. “The opportunities are pretty amazing. If I didn't have Barry and Nancy, I wouldn't have known.”

Hairston said that other minority-owned companies may know about certifications, but don’t have the resources to complete the rigorous process.

“If you're out there just pouring concrete and you're doing the billing at night, even if you hear about it, you're going to be like, ‘How am I ever going to get there?’" he said. "I got lucky in many ways.”

Tidwell recommended 3C Industries for the Crew project. Contracted under Corna Kokosing under specialty services for an expected amount of $200,000, the company installed everything from bathroom stalls to fire extinguishers at the team’s new training facility, the OhioHealth Performance Center, located at the old Crew Stadium.

“It’s not a huge job, but it’s a step into this new world,” Hairston said. “Things have kind of just exploded.”

He has been able to network with Corna Kokosing and other major construction companies like Turner and Elford Inc. He has bidding opportunities and other plans in the works, and hopes to grow 3C from doing $3 million in business to $16 million in two years.

Hairston grew up in a family of construction workers and spent about a decade managing projects in India, Russia and Norway after receiving his associate degree in construction management from Columbus State Community College.

But he said he still contends with stereotypes about the quality of his work.

“I think the preconceived notion of who we are when we first walk in the door is, ‘You're a minority. You probably don't have any skills. You're probably not good at writing. You're probably not good at managing. And you're there just as a leech to get as much as you can and not to be the expert and really good at what you do.’ We work consciously to pull that down to just be a good contractor that people want to work with.”

And hopefully his efforts will change the industry for the better. 

“When my son walks in the door, I want him to be accepted first as a professional, and that they assume through association with me, and the association as a minority, that he knows what he's doing," Hairston said. "Not the opposite.”

Cincinnati entrepreneur Barbara Smith demonstrated the quality of her work to prime contractor Jones Sign when she worked with the company on a job for the new FC Cincinnati TQL Stadium. Her company, Journey Steel, provided structural support for signage. 

She subcontracted with the national company for the same type of work (totaling approximately $800,000) on the Crew project, which allowed her to strengthen their professional relationship. 

Barbara Smith, co-founder of Journey Steel in Cincinnati, was awarded a contract on the Crew stadium project.

“We were really excited about that and being a part of the new driving force all across the United States, which is soccer,” said Smith, 55, who lives in Bond Hill.

She added that it’s also part of the company's strategic growth plan to expand its footprint in Columbus.

“Columbus has made great strides, at least that's been the buzz, awarding contracts to more diverse companies,” she said. “It's a growing city and you've got a lot of construction happening. We'll get Columbus contractors coming down here to Cincinnati. We don't look at it like they're impeding our space because there's enough to go around.”

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Founded in 2009, Journey Steel is one of a small number of minority-owned steel production companies in the U.S. Smith said she is always looking for opportunities to grow; she is currently enrolled in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, which provides small businesses with greater access to education, capital and business support services.

“(I'm) pretty much taking advantage of my MBE certification and not just having it, but networking,” Smith said. “What are other people doing? How can I better myself? What's available?'" 

Because Smith worked on the new soccer stadiums for both the Crew and FC Cincinnati, she doesn't want to play favorites. 

“I'm going to root for Columbus and I'm going to root for FC Cincinnati, unless they're playing each other," she said. "Then, I'll go to the Reds game." 

ethompson@dispatch.com

@miss_ethompson

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