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Charlotte's tourism arm under increased scrutiny following WCNC investigation

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority has yet to outline any specific changes following its exclusion of minority and women-owned businesses for a $750,000 job.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A member of the Charlotte City Council is demanding action after WCNC Charlotte discovered the city's taxpayer-funded tourism arm excluded minority and women-owned businesses from a series of paydays worth $750,000.

"We need to do better," Councilmember LaWana Mayfield said. "I don't think every department head understands and really gets it."

A WCNC Charlotte investigation in January exposed the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority's longtime reliance on leadership consulting firm Throwing Words.

The CRVA hired the consultant without ever considering other qualified small businesses.

CRVA executives later gave the leadership coach their stamp of approval, first in an online testimonial and then during a Throwing Words podcast.

CEO Tom Murray declined an initial interview request, so WCNC Charlotte attended the February CRVA Board of Directors meeting and provided Murray with advance notice.

"We're incredibly proud of our [Minority and Women Business Enterprises] program and it's really vital to our organization and to the way we operate and to our leadership team and we really value our vendor relationships and they've been trusted relationships for a long time," Murray said after the meeting. "We believe that we've answered and responded to all of your questions appropriately and so, we're finished with that conversation."

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The CRVA, a public authority, previously defended the hire by touting the leadership coach's credentials and experience and citing state law, which doesn't require competitive bids for service jobs. Through a spokesperson, the CRVA later said it always seeks "to expand the supply chain" so that it reflects the community's diversity and elevates community prosperity. 

However, the CRVA never detailed any specific actions it would take to ensure this doesn't happen again.

"I know that you all had a singular focus in this case and excluded other small businesses, particularly minority and women. I think those people are wondering, how is that fair?" WCNC Charlotte asked Murray.

"As I've said before, we believe we've responded to all of your questions appropriately and so we're finished," Murray replied.

"Anything changing internally though?" WCNC Charlotte pushed back.

"No, as we've said before, we believe we've already responded to these questions," Murray said.

WCNC Charlotte showed Councilmember Mayfield the 55-second unedited interview.

"That response, to me, is a bit tone-deaf to the needs of the community," she said. "I'm disappointed...There was not an acknowledgment that, 'Yes, we dropped the ball, we need to make internal changes, and here are one or two of the changes and the commitment we're going to make specifically for small business enterprises or minority-owned businesses moving forward."

The Charlotte City Council approves annual CRVA funding. Councilmember Mayfield said she intends to request a detailed report from City Manager Marcus Jones.

"Myself and my colleagues need to let the manager know that we expect a report out from Mr. Murray," she said. "It does need to be brought on our radar."

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to WCNC Charlotte by emailing money@wcnc.com.

Christine Edwards said semi-governmental agencies and private companies have the opportunity to change the government contracting landscape in Charlotte.

"They are really poised to lead by example," she said. "They are poised to set the standard."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Edwards once worked for local governments. Now, she runs Civility Localized, a community engagement firm that often contracts with area agencies.

"If it's not competitive and you're just awarding the contract to anyone, that's not competition-based and then that's when you really do exclude people," Edwards said. "Given the opportunity, these small businesses should be able to earn their fair share."

Edwards called the CRVA's long-standing MWBE program a "good start." The program is aimed at offering procurement opportunities to often overlooked segments of the population as part of what the CRVA calls a "commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion." However, Edwards said more inclusive policies and better metrics are needed.

"They're not a guarantee, but they are really a safeguard," she said. "I think there's so much more to do. I think that when you're talking the talk, you need to walk the walk too."

She said it's also wise business to make sure jobs that might balloon in cost include language that requires the main contractor subcontract to help spread the opportunity around.

Credit: India Monet
LaPronda Spann

Government contracting expert LaPronda Spann previously echoed the same stance.

"Of course, it bothers me," Spann said in January. "They need to reexamine and enhance their programs. There has to be something that is put into place so that this does not happen again."

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After WCNC Charlotte exposed a similar practice within the City of Charlotte last year, the city manager changed the city's contracting policies to require departments to request a proposal/quote from at least one MWSBE for every job that starts out below $100,000.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

During the CRVA's recent board meeting, no board members voiced any concerns.

"I typically prefer not to make public comments," Board Chair Boris Bunich said in an email to WCNC Charlotte the following day, referring questions to the CRVA. "As Board Chair, I have full confidence in the operation and management of the CRVA and its leadership."'

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

WCNC Charlotte previously requested comment from Bunich and other board members in January, but did not receive a response at the time. Internal emails show, behind the scenes, Bunich requested a "quick call' with Murray to discuss our questions on Jan. 9.

On the day WCNC Charlotte's initial investigation was published, public records show Murray emailed talking points to executives and board members hours later "to ensure our leaders were aware and felt confident fielding any questions from our team members." The original draft of those talking points referred to CRVA employees as "valued team members," but "valued" was not included in the final email, records show.

When asked recently whether the CRVA intended to change any of its policies to be more inclusive related to service jobs, Director of Communications Karen Brand also declined to answer the question.

"Our long-standing MWBE program is an important part of our procurement activities," she said in an email response. "The goal of the CRVA's Vendor Diversity program is to provide Minority and Women-owned Businesses with opportunities to participate in the CRVA's procurement process. We are encouraged by the comprehensive efforts and results of our work with Minority and Women-owned Businesses as part of the CRVA's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion."

While the CRVA has refused to release specifics, the public authority has taken, at minimum, some form of action. The public authority quietly updated its website recently to solicit new MWBE vendor applications.

In the meantime, Councilmember James Mitchell told WCNC Charlotte Thursday he has asked city staff to provide a report detailing how much money partner agencies, including CRVA, have spent hiring certified MWSBEs through Charlotte's Business INClusion program. He expects the city to release the results of that request at a Charlotte City Council budget workshop on March 9.

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.    

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