The Gainesville City Commission aims to keep four Eastside projects from stalling by hiring an external management firm to coordinate its efforts.
The commission voted 5-2 to hire CHW Consultants, who will place a liaison within the city manager’s office in City Hall to manage the projects—the Power District, the Eastside Health and Economic Development Initiative (EHEDI), the 8th Avenue and Waldo Road revitalization and a Cultural Arts Center.
The contract sets a price maximum of $375,000 for two years of project management by CHW Consultants. The firm will set timelines and coordinate stakeholders while also allowing the city to use its services like surveying, permitting and designing.
If the city moves forward with all four, Gainesville will spend millions of dollars in economic development on the Eastside that hasn’t seen investment in decades, Mayor Harvey Ward said.
“There's always been a reason to not move forward,” Ward said in a Friday interview. “We've many times over the decades gotten close to investing in east Gainesville and just never quite took that last step. This is the beginning of actual investment.”
The city’s Wild Spaces Public Places and Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area funding will finance the bulk of the projects.
But commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and Ed Book dissented, worrying about the process used to hire CHW Consultants. City Manager Cynthia Curry proposed a no-bid contract for the outside firm, avoiding the typical route of opening a process that anyone can apply for.
Curry called the request for proposals (RFP) process the normal preference but said the no-bid contract is an option open to the city. She said staff recommended the option in order to speed up the city response and not spend more than a month on the bid process.
She added that other projects and duties have already maxed out city staff.
“When I look across the city, there are gaps in skillsets, and based on where we’re at right now financially, we may not necessarily be able to fill them internally,” Curry said. "We may have to continue to consult or reach out to fill those gaps in this way."
Commissioner Reina Saco noted that the city has already pre-qualified CHW Consultants through a continuing engineering contract.
Phil Mann, advisor to the city manager, explained that the city renews the contract every three to five years in order to qualify companies for expertise work. He said the city uses the firms when grant money comes in that the city needs to move on quickly, eliminating the use of a lengthier request for proposals.
Saco said this continuing engineering services contract shows that the city didn’t just pick CHW Consultants out of thin air but had prequalified the firm and then picked it based on the services needed for the project management.
Duncan-Walker said she appreciated Curry’s efforts and the need for expedience, but she said the city should open the opportunity for all businesses to work on the projects. She noted that several other firms have the capability to do the work.
"I don't want to ever seem like we're playing favorites, and I don't want to ever be accused of cronyism like some of our constituents are doing right now because of appearances,” Duncan Walker said. “We can mitigate that."
Book supported Duncan-Walker and compared his dissent to another down vote he placed on March 9.
In that item, the city had opened up an unsolicited proposal process. One of the proposals moved forward, and city staff brought it forward to see if the commission had interest in moving forward. Book and Duncan-Walker dissented at the time. Book said the process gives advantage to one of the bidders like with the no-bid contract.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut joined those commissioners on March 9, forming a three-person minority. However, she supported the no-bid option in this case.
She said the commission gives new assignments and projects to city staff every two weeks at regular meetings and at General Policy Meetings on the off weeks. Chestnut said their list of work is full and the changes being proposed demand action.
“I don’t think we’re going to have the staff to see these through, not in a timely manner,” Chestnut said. “And when you don’t see them through in a timely manner then things end up getting lost—you get off the track. I don’t want to see the east side of town off the track.”
Chestnut has also driven for the city to move forward on the 8th Avenue and Waldo Road revitalization project since she joined the commission in early 2022.
Of the four projects, EHEDI already has momentum with a groundbreaking for UF’s Urgent Care Clinic scheduled for June. The city also expects an independent feasibility study on the 8th Avenue and Waldo Road project to return within the next month.
The Power District remains in limbo. As property of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), the city commission may lose control of the 20 acres if Senate Bill 1645 — the GRU bill — receives approval by Gov. Ron DeSantis.