On Thursday, Jan. 17, the question of black participation in Guilford County construction contracts dropped and exploded like a nuclear bomb on Guilford County government.

Among other consequences, that explosion knocked a proposed new Emergency Services facility completely off track – even though that project was just hours away from expected approval.

The intense discussion lasted for nearly two hours during an afternoon work session of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, continued in a closed session the board called as a result of that discussion and extended well into the board’s regular Thursday evening meeting, when a virtual Who’s Who of area black leaders spoke from the floor on the fact that the commissioners were considering accepting a construction contract that had zero percent participation from black businesses.

Guilford County staff was recommending that a new $14-million Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility be built by New Atlantic Contracting Inc. out of Winston-Salem, the low bidder on the project. The proposal from New Atlantic called for 25.3 percent minority and women business enterprise (MWBE) participation in the job.  But that broke down to 21.6 percent women owned businesses, 3.7 percent Hispanic owned businesses and zero percent black owned businesses.

The Thursday afternoon work session in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House was held to cover several topics but the proposed contract with New Atlantic was the second item on the list and that discussion knocked everything else off of the agenda.

Commissioner Skip Alston, one of three black commissioners on the nine-member Board of Commissioners, had requested the work session in order to air his concerns and he certainly came prepared.

Alston had a long list of black contractors that he said New Atlantic had said it had contacted – to get those businesses to become involved in New Atlantic’s work on the project – but Alston said he’d spent two hours that morning speaking with those contractors and he could find no evidence that any of them had been contacted by the company.  He stated in a fiery tone that it would be absolutely unconscionable for the county to enter into the contract given what was known.

Alston also chastised county staff – including a very uncomfortable exchange with Guilford County Deputy Manager Clarence Grier who, like Alston, is African-American.  In that conversation Alston repeatedly asked Grier if he were satisfied with having zero percent of the project go to black-owned businesses.

Grier and other staff spoke about state law that requires the county go with the lowest responsible bidder, but Alston argued that New Atlantic wasn’t being a responsible bidder since, he said, the company hadn’t made any sort of good faith effort to get black participation in the project as the county had requested.

Commissioner Carlvena Foster also expressed her concerns at the work session and several other commissioners also said the county needed to explore the matter further given what they were hearing.

After nearly two hours of discussion in open session at the afternoon work session, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne suggested the board go into closed session since the discussion was getting into the particulars of the bid process.  When the commissioners came out of closed session and held their regular evening meeting, they heard a great deal more on the matter from a host of prominent local black leaders.

After the speeches, Alston made a motion for the board to postpone any decision on awarding the construction contract for the Emergency Services facility and the board voted unanimously to do so.