The Bayview Library will be the largest Black-built project in San Francisco history

Editor’s update: This commentary was written a few days before the official contract award was announced. On Sept. 1, we learned that Liberty Builders, owned by Bay View publisher Willie Ratcliff, will build the new Bayview Library. That’s a great breakthrough and good news for Liberty Builders, the Bay View and the entire community. It’s a step toward heeding the advice of Malcolm X, who said, “We should own and operate and control the economy of our community.” Keep an eye on www.sfbayview.com. In about a month, we should know when the jobs will begin and how you can benefit.

by Joseph Debro

Willie Ratcliff, owner of Liberty Builders, was low bidder on the Bayview Library rebuilding. The city of San Francisco bid the project wrong. The bid should have been a request for proposal rather than a request for qualifications, followed by a request for bid. The department should have been Redevelopment rather than Public Works.

Willie was so eager to build the project and put the community to work that he left some money on the table. He has enough experience to build it for the amount he bid, however. The building will be more symbolic than profitable for Liberty Builders.

The award has not been made. After the award is announced, there follows a notice to proceed. Liberty Builders must produce a bond, which requires equity and working capital, neither of which Liberty Builders has. Herein lies the real problem.

In order to reach the starting line, Willie had to have public works experience. While gaining that experience, he has had to try to survive. Survival cost is high for a Black man who dares to be a general contractor and fight for the rights of others.

Willie does not have the balance sheet or the credit standing required by a bonding company to issue Liberty Builders a bond. Bonding is a subjective business. A surety company like a bank can and sometimes does make judgments bases on factors other than credit. Is there one company that will overlook the warts in Willie’s application and take this risk?

The issues in this project are greater than Liberty Builders. The issues are community benefits almost too numerous to mention. The symbolism of a Black general contractor being awarded a $5 million contract by the City of San Francisco for the very first time is mind-boggling. There has never been a general contract of this size awarded to a Black contractor by the City of San Francisco in its history.

The Bayview Library project got started on the wrong foot. The Library Commission awarded the architectural design contract to a White Oregon firm. Members of the Black community disrupted this process at the pre-bid conference. Can you imagine the city contracting with a White Oregon firm to design such a library in Chinatown? San Francisco is full of architectural firms – Black, White and Asian. Why would the city go to Oregon for such services?

All of the housing projects in Hunters Point have been awarded to White general contractors. These White general contractors hire White subcontractors, who hire and train White workers. This is done while our Black unemployed watch.

When is this process going to ever change? Liberty Builders is trying to show the city how to make a difference. If Liberty Builders does not get a surety bond and the necessary working capital, the city can find a way. It found a way to award Nibbi Brothers a $23 million contract without bond and without bid.

Black contractors hire and train Black workers.

Now is the time. It is common knowledge that Black contractors hire and train Black workers. White contractors hire and train White workers. Our unemployed are not being trained. Craft unions will import labor rather than train our unemployed. In the last construction boom, craft union locals issued hundreds of traveling cards to out-of-state workers rather than train our unemployed.

Now is the time to demonstrate another way.

Joseph Debro is president of Bay Area Black Builders, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors, a general engineering contractor and a bio-chemical engineer. He can be reached at transbay@netzero.com.