Nashville airport officials should certainly understand why people might be skeptical of their efforts as they address participation levels of minority-owned and female-owned businesses in contracts.

Studies released this year show that only 8 percent of contracts awarded by Metro agencies and the airport have gone to minorities in the last seven years. The airport is striving to have a fair system, and airport officials need to know they will win favor with many people in this region if they show inclusiveness in awarding contracts. It is good to see their attention to the issue. But the matter is not limited to the airport, and Mayor Karl Dean's announcement early in his term of trying to address the city's record on the issue should be a plus.

 

The airport has in hand a study conducted by an Atlanta consulting firm that took an in-depth look at issues of disparity regarding businesses owned by minorities and white females and analyzes how the airport uses those businesses. The airport is addressing participation levels after the findings.

The record has been troublesome. Between 2004 and 2007, the airport awarded about 92 percent of its contracts to businesses owned by white men.
Metro government, from 1999-2003, awarded 92.38 percent of construction contracts to companies owned by white men and all but 5.3 percent of professional services contracts to white male-owned businesses. The consultant has found that Nashville has fewer businesses owned by minorities and women competing than the market would suggest, which is a problem.

It was encouraging to see recent plans by Nashville's new mayor. Dean announced steps to boost minority- and women-owned businesses by appointing a Nashville businesswoman to lead a new advisory council on minority businesses; promoting the official who had overseen small and minority business participation to a role as special assistant to the mayor; and hiring the Atlanta firm to help the city's legal department develop new policies for contracting and procurement.

The airport study concludes that minority- and women-owned businesses are severely underutilized, although utilization of some of those businesses by the airport is better than in the private sector. The study recommends that the airport develop a non-discrimination program; coordinate ongoing outreach; incorporate those businesses in all procurements; review the bundling of large projects so businesses are looked at on their own; review automatic contract extensions that exist; strengthen the role of compliance; and add resources in the Office of Business Diversity Development.

The legal aspects of the issue are significant. Policies need to be such that they do not invite court challenges. Anecdotal accounts suggest that in the past businesses have fudged on requirements to include minority- and female-owned businesses. No one at the airport or in Metro should stand for unfair practices. If the spirit and recommendations of the study are followed, Nashville has a chance to be considered top-notch in fairness in the way it awards contracts, which is exactly what it should seek.