HARLEM — Columbia University's $6.4 billion, 17-acre Manhattanville campus is big business, but it's small companies that stand to reap the profits.
The project's managers are actively reaching out to construction companies based in upper Manhattan and the South Bronx, small businesses and those operated by minorities and women.
"All I need is a chance to compete," said Andrew Wiggins of Superior Quality Craftsmen, who came to a recent information session for people seeking work at the site.
"There's a great opportunity to get work here, but we need to know we will be part of it and not shut out by the big guys."
More than 150 contractors showed up to the work fair where Columbia officials told them they are committed to making sure that 35 percent of all construction dollars spent, outside of work that requires special skills, goes to women, minorities and locally-owned businesses.
Columbia has been criticized by various community groups because they say they don't see that the thousands of jobs the university promised as part of the project have materialized, while functioning businesses were displaced because of the project.
The Coalition to Preserve Community, which includes Columbia students and the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary's Church, say that those applying for jobs have been pushed aside.
But Columbia says that 47 percent of the $17 million it has awarded in construction contracts from August 2008 to March 2011 has gone to minorities, women and local firms. Seventy percent, or $12.1 million, has gone to local firms in Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx.
Over the next few years, construction spending is going to ramp up in everything from drywalling, painting, waterproofing, electrical and mechanical work and plumbing, Columbia officials said.
"The reality is that we've been at this a while but are now just moving into a construction phase," said La-Verna Fountain, associate vice-president of construction business services for the university.
"If I see huge cranes in the air, of course I'm going to say, 'What's happening?'" she said. "We understand that with the reality of the way the economy is, people just want to work."
Community groups say they want to see written proof of the numbers Columbia cites.
Robert Parchment, who owns Robert Parchment Plumbing and Heating Inc., in West Harlem, said he was hired to renovate the plumbing in a former restaurant in the construction zone that Columbia is now using as offices. He has already worked on several recent Harlem projects such as the Marshall's and Harlem Children's Zone buildings on125th street.
"It's the beginning of the relationship," said Parchment, who added that he too was anxious for more work.
"I know it's going to take time because the project is not up to full speed yet. But from what I see, their position is for guys like me to participate. I'm encouraged."
Philip Pitruzzello, vice president of Manhattanville Construction for Columbia University, said the university is taking a number of steps to make it easier for women and minority contractors to compete.
The university is breaking up the larger contracts into smaller ones, and also posting the names and contact information of larger contractors online so that smaller companies can make contact and seek work. There is also a mentoring program in place for small businesses.
Columbia is also providing an owner-controlled insurance policy, meaning that smaller companies won't have to secure the large multi-million dollar insurance policies that are typically required on a project like the Manhattanville campus expansion. Acquiring those insurance policies can be an impediment for small companies.
Still, even though work on some projects will start bidding out now, things won't really be underway for another couple of years.
"I encourage everyone to look at this as a business development opportunity," said Cheryl McKissack of Mckissack and Mckissack, the firm hired to make sure minority and local contracts are meeting the standard.
Beatrice Sibblies, a developer of 88 Morningside, a condominum development, is also the chair of Community Board 10's economic development committee.
She said the community is going to have to keep the pressure on Columbia to live up to its promises while the business community has to step up and seize the available opportunities.
She said it was an embarassment that there are even questions about the capacity of minority and women construction firms when cities such as Atlanta and Chicago have taken steps to increase those groups.
"It takes two hands to clap," she said. "This project could be a game-changer for the way large-scale construction projects are done."
Michael Dickerson, owner of Tightseal Construction in the South Bronx, said local firms such as his need to get the work.
"I live in Harlem, it can't be all outsiders," said Dickerson.
Scott Griffin, owner of Artisan Construction, a concrete firm based in Queens, said that when he gets work, he expects that he can give other people an opportunity.
"I am not here just as an exercise. This needs to happen," he said after the fair. "This is really about me being able to pull people off the street and put them to work during these desperate times."