Gwinnett County to check for disparities in contracts to women and minorities

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners has budgeted about $500,000 this year for a study that would look at the number of county contracts awarded to minority and women-owned businesses, and the commission plans to solicit bids this year from consultants to produce the report.

“We are a very diverse county with a lot of minority businesses, a lot of international businesses,” commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said. “It really was coming in and responding to the change that was already in our community.”

Gwinnett has never done such a study, known as a “disparity study,” so the county doesn’t know how many of its contracts, or what percentage of purchasing dollars, go to minority or women-owned companies. Disparity studies often research those numbers and compare them to the number of local minority and women-owned businesses available and able to handle such contracts.

Disparity studies are often a legal requirement for race- and gender-based contracting policies, in the wake of several court decisions. Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the city of Richmond, Virginia, couldn’t set aside 30% of subcontracting dollars for minority firms without first proving discrimination existed.

State agencies and Atlanta Public Schools have conducted disparity studies for their contracts, and Fulton County is in the middle of one. APS’s disparity study, which dates to 2017, found that African American-owned firms received 2.3% of the school system’s construction contract dollars despite making up about 29% of the local marketplace.

Atlanta’s city government, by contrast, began winning accolades under then-Mayor Maynard Jackson in the 1970s for its affirmative action contracting policies. Jackson blocked the expansion of Atlanta’s airport, which now bears his name, until 25% of the construction contracts went to minority-owned businesses. By 1978, almost 39% of the city’s contracts went to minority-owned firms.

The massive Rowen research park under construction in eastern Gwinnett, which is publicly financed but managed by a nonprofit foundation, has set a goal that 30% of all funds spent on contractors and vendors will go toward small, minority- and women-owned businesses.

It’s a mindset that Raymond Cobb, a Black Gwinnettian who owns Jeannie Bell Marketing Solutions, has yet to see in Gwinnett, where he is on the chamber of commerce board. He said the large minority-owned companies inside the perimeter aren’t doing much business in Gwinnett, and neither are minority-owned businesses based locally, for that matter.

“We don’t have a culture in which that’s an intention,” Cobb said. “Most of these guys, like myself, generate our revenue outside of Gwinnett. ...If you’re a Black businessperson in Gwinnett, you’re thinking about this all the time.”

Cobb lost a bid to do marketing for Rowen. He said he won a spot on a list of contractors to market a Gwinnett transit expansion, but then voters rejected the transit project in a referendum.

A full disparity study would take 18 months to finish, Hendrickson said. After talking to some minority business owners, she has some ideas for more equity in contracting but said the study will also provide recommendations.

The county could break more of its contracts into smaller pieces to give small minority-owned businesses a better chance, as when it contracted fire station landscaping by zone instead of countywide.

Hendrickson began pushing two years ago for the study. In the meantime, the county government has worked on a broader equity plan and trained department heads on the concepts involved, she said.

“We have a lot of department directors who came from former administrations and these conversations were not being had,” she said. “We want to do this right.”