Tonkins leaves minority business post

Sought city contracts for women, minorities

January 01, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Nearly three years after Mayor Martin O'Malley hired him to head up an ambitious initiative to increase business opportunities for minorities, the head of the city's minority business development office has stepped down.

Owen Tonkins' last day in the $90,000-a-year Cabinet post was yesterday.

Tonkins was out of the office and didn't return calls to his home, but Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said Tonkins left to "pursue other interests."

He was hired to oversee a plan crafted by O'Malley and several prominent black politicians, including then- House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, they hoped would reverse a business climate they said had bypassed blacks.

Tonkins was charged with making sure minorities were included in the West Side revitalization project and the "Digital Harbor" - a high-tech hub that died with the dot-com bust.

He held a seat on the board of the city's development arm, Baltimore Development Corp., and played a key role in the mayor's goal of increasing the proportion of city contracts that go to minority- and women-owned companies from 23 percent to 35 percent.

As of September, 28 percent of city contracts, worth $70 million, have been awarded to the designated companies in 2003. In 2000, the city awarded $44.7 million to minority- and women-owned businesses, compared with $67.2 million in 2001 and $78.5 million in 2002.

Tonkins leaves his position at a time when the city has been criticized by some as having gone too far to achieve its goal and unfairly favoring minorities when awarding contracts.

But yesterday, some minority business owners said they would have liked to have seen more progress. Many said Tonkins was limited in what he could do because of a business climate, both in the private sector and within the walls of City Hall, resistant to change.

Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, said that many of the agencies that award contracts often openly ignored the minority-participation goals.

"I believe that more could have been done, more always can be done," Frazier said. "The agencies still have an awful lot of the good old boy networks that prevent someone like Owen to do more."

Pless Jones Jr., vice president of P&J Contracting Co. in Baltimore and president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, said he hasn't seen a noticeable difference in contracting opportunities for minorities since Tonkins took over.

"I think he was a pretty good guy," Jones said. "I think he just had too much do deal with. I know he put his effort into it."

Tonkins has said that his three-person office didn't have the resources to have as much of an impact as he would have liked. But he also said his office did a lot behind the scenes.

The city has started a national search to replace Tonkins, and Guillory said the mayor is still committed to improving business for minorities.

Andrea Garris, now a special assistant in the Office of Minority Business Development, will serve as acting director.

"I think Owen was a big part of the success we've seen in our minority business development, and we'd like to continue to build on that," Guillory said.

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