Questions raised about Atlanta zoo, arena construction management contract

The government agency that owns Zoo Atlanta and the newly christened State Farm Arena hired the highest bidder to oversee high-profile construction projects at both facilities.

Now, a City Council member and Fulton County commissioner are raising questions about the process.

The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority hired Texas construction giant Con-Real to oversee the zoo expansion for $1.4 million, nearly three-times the amount of the low bidder. Con-Real also was awarded oversight of renovations at the Atlanta Hawks’ home with a bid of $2.4 million, nearly double their sole competitor’s bid.

The authority told Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the contracting process for those projects followed the authority’s rules and the contracts with Con-Real will save taxpayers millions of dollars by making sure the work is done on budget.

In a statement, the authority praised Con-Real for the its deep experience with similar projects. But City Councilman Andre Dickens called the process “very concerning.”

“I’m trying to understand the bid process and how winners and losers are picked, but this right here, what you’re telling me, is of concern,” Dickens said.

Con-Real will monitor what other contractors are doing for the $50 million zoo expansion and the $192.5 million renovation of the State Farm Arena.

Con-Real is one of the nation’s largest minority-owned construction firms, and the company has performed extensive program management and other work on arenas nationwide.

Gerald Alley, president and CEO of Con-Real, said his firm acts as the owner’s representative, and is there to ensure contractors complete all work at the agreed upon quality and price. The company also vets all change orders to make sure any additional charges are justified.

“I wasn’t aware of what other bids that they had,” Alley said. “We gave a proposal to provide services for which we thought they would need and they looked at it, what services we do and what value the services were. They found we were the most capable firm to do it.”

The company was awarded a small consulting contract by the recreation authority in April 2017, a few days before the authority’s then-executive director, Keisha Lance Bottoms, stepped down from her role as executive director to run for mayor.

The jobs overseeing Zoo Atlanta and arena construction work came later.

The authority signed Con-Real’s $1.4 million contract in June to oversee construction of the 5-acre zoo expansion. It was about triple what the low bidder — MIG South — proposed. For the arena deal, Con-Real bid $2.4 million, or about twice what MIG submitted.

Con-Real was awarded that bid in June 2017.

Bob Ellis, a Fulton County commissioner and member of the recreation authority board, told Channel 2 he couldn’t recall discussion among board members about the price differences between the bids. Records his office provided do not show the board ever voting on the contracts.

In an email, Ellis said, “The numbers jump out at me and concern me. I plan to investigate this and seek some answers.”

In a statement, the recreation authority said it didn’t have to seek board approval.

“Because the owner’s representative is compensated from the construction budget, not [the authority’s] budget, board approval was not required,” the statement said. “Con-Real was selected because of their extensive construction experience, specifically their experience on similar sports facilities.”

The authority said Con-Real’s work “could potentially save taxpayers many times the amount of their compensation,” and that the company has found non-allowed expenditures, reducing the projects’ costs.

Alley said his company has been on the respective jobs for a matter of months and is putting into place its chain of command, and reporting and cost validation processes.

“In the very early stages, I can’t say we’ve saved money, but the first part is getting set up and organized and document the steps that are getting done,” Alley said.

He said Con-Real will make sure the project is delivered for the authority in the time, cost and manner they expect.

Our Reporting

Channel 2 Action News and the AJC looked at documents related to a contract for construction oversight services for the Zoo Atlanta and State Farm Arena overhauls. The records showed the winning company was the highest bidder, and the contracts were approved without a vote of the full board. The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority said it wasn’t obligated to pick the low bidder, nor seek board approval because funds to pay the contract came from construction and not the agency’s budget. The authority said the contracts will save taxpayers more money than the value of the awards.