SANTA CLARA -- A little more than a year ago, a coalition of civil rights groups vilified the San Francisco 49ers with a caustic "open letter" that accused the team of leaving out minority-owned firms when it issued lucrative contracts for constructing the $1.2 billion Levi's Stadium.
That aggressive ground game worked: The team is now doing business in a whole new way.
The Niners, top stadium contractors, a host of major vendors and a San Jose minority-business consulting firm say more minority-owned firms are now involved in building the facility. And after the facility opens Aug. 2, minority firms will be involved even more.
While some early critics now laud the 49ers' turnabout, others say the team can't make up for effectively shutting out minority contractors until the project was two-thirds built. One activist estimates only about 2 percent of the stadium's construction contracts went to minority- or women-owned firms.
After receiving the scathing letter, the team ordered New York-based Turner Construction, the main contractor, to reopen bids on jobs that had not started. That opportunity led to one black-owned Pleasanton firm winning a multimillion-dollar contract to provide all the furniture in the stadium.
And now, with guidance from the Minority Business Consortium of San Jose, the team instructed major vendors -- security, janitorial, parking, food, beverages and merchandise -- to seek out and immediately hire small and minority-owned firms.
"We got a true commitment from the Niners," said Reginald Swilley of the consortium. "That made this into the real deal."
The consortium's Walter Wilson says his organization is recruiting and vetting minority- and women-owned businesses on behalf of the stadium's prime contractors and that 100 percent of the firms referred have been offered work -- which ultimately will amount to 22 percent of the contracts.
Wilson also said the team pledged to strive for
diversity throughout its work force -- all the way down to interns and nonprofit organizations that raise funds by working stadium events.
"The opportunities the Niners and Turner and the stadium vendors are now creating have never happened before with any NFL team," Wilson said. "They are setting an unprecedented example that will be followed leaguewide."
The consortium says minority firms were left out of most of the construction work because the possibility of landing Super Bowl 50 led to rushed hiring decisions in order to complete the massive project in record time.
The dramatic change began after the April 2013 letter from a Bay Area civil rights law firm embarrassed the team as it constructed its high-tech, environmentally friendly showpiece. The team, hoping to respond to the criticism quickly, was advised by the Santa Clara & San Benito Counties Building & Construction Trades Council to hook up with the 4-year-old business consortium.
"I'm really pleased we did not get push-back from major firms and vendors," Jim Mercurio, the Niners' vice president of stadium operations, said about the team's new "guiding principles."
He said it was no accident that he was discussing the Niners' new resolve inside the new "Bill Walsh Room." The legendary Niners head coach, who died in 2007, founded the Black Coaches Summer Program that created historic opportunities for minority NFL coaches.
Still, not all of the Niners' critics are happy.
A member of the San Francisco-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights insists that no matter how much goodwill the team's new efforts have sparked, it's "too little, too late" to repair the financial damage to minority firms left out of the initial construction process.
"Minority business participation in the stadium was abysmal," said Oren Sellstrom, legal director of the committee. "After we intervened, Turner and the Niners made limited efforts to engage firms on contracts, but so much work had already happened, the overall percentage of participation remained small."
Considering the number of licensed minority-owned firms in the area, Sellstrom said, they should have landed 20 percent of the construction contracts. But even after the negative publicity, Sellstrom estimates that minority firms wound up getting about 2 percent of those contracts.
As the Niners' point man on the stadium's construction, Mercurio said he found the letter insulting, but also enlightening.
The team was accused of being interested in diversity only on the field. "Our (black) children are why you're building the stadium," wrote Long Beach-based attorney Everett Glenn, president of a nonprofit advocacy group for black athletes. "It's time we share in the harvest."
The Niners fiercely denied that accusation, and Turner still rejects the notion that minorities didn't participate in building the stadium. Along with co-contractor Devcon, Turner released a statement to this newspaper saying that 51 percent of stadium workers were women or members of minority groups -- and that they've earned more than $107 million in wages.
"The problem was participation by (minority-owned) firms," Wilson said, "not with the number of minority workers."
Catapult to more jobs
The consortium's Swilley said five years' work experience by smaller firms on an NFL stadium catapults them toward working major projects. And with huge construction on the horizon for valley companies such as Apple and Google, Swilley said, the Niners are producing a far-reaching, game-changing code of conduct about fairness and diversity in contract employment.
From now on, the Niners are seeking "to make the stadium look like Silicon Valley," said Mercurio. The consortium is striving for workforce goals of about 55 percent for minorities and women and 25 percent local.
Even as finishing work continues, in nearly every corner of the stadium -- galleries, bars, restaurants, fan clubs, corporate suites and an array of media, locker, meeting and training rooms -- there are stylish brush strokes by Metro Contract Group, a black-owned office furniture dealership and design firm. Once allowed to participate in the bidding process, Metro saved the Niners $2 million.
"We have 20 years' experience and we can do any job based on our own merit," said Dwight Jackson, president and CEO of Metro, which has also done work for the Golden State Warriors and San Jose Sharks.
Strolling around the Niners' new home, Jackson, an East Palo Alto native, showed off everything from handcrafted custom training tables to low-slung sofas featuring USB ports. His firm has also subcontracted work to other small, minority-owned firms.
"What we do is icing on the cake," Jackson said. "The Niners trusted my firm to attain a high level of quality, overall design and aesthetic. I give them lots of credit for that."
Contact David E. Early at 408-920-5836