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Government & Politics

State recommends new, politically connected company for lucrative airport deal

A view of a terminal at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. Photo from adobe.stock.com.

The Maryland Aviation Administration has recommended that a new, politically connected company be awarded a lucrative, 20-year contract to run the concessions operations at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The agency sent out short letters to the other bidders for the contract last Wednesday, the day after Election Day, informing them that their companies’ names would not be forwarded to high-ranking state officials and the Board of Public Works for final approval. The state, according to the letters, “has recommended New Market Development Joint Venture, LLC as the most advantageous to MDOT MAA subject to the approval of the Executive Director, the Secretary of Transportation for the State of Maryland and the BPW.”

As Maryland Matters reported last month, New Market Development Joint Venture LLC is owned and operated by Major Riddick, a former chief of staff to former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), who formed the company in 2021 specifically to win the contract to operate the concessions — food, drink, retail and other hospitality services — at the busy state-owned airport. Riddick has owned a separate company for two decades, Great Foods LLC, that has fast food contracts at BWI Marshall and at Pittsburgh International Airport, but he has never managed a full concessions contract at any airport.

But the state’s decision to recommend that the contract go to a new company isn’t likely to sit well with the established airport industry vendors that also put in bids — considering how the procurement process played out. Specifically, the state’s Request for Proposal to find a new operator of the airport’s concessions was changed twice after it was issued in ways that put New Market Development at an advantage.

Yet that isn’t the only controversy over the bidding process.

The Maryland Airport Administration recommendation, assuming it’s OK’d by high-ranking Maryland Department of Transportation officials, would go before the Board of Public Works, which doles out major state contracts, for final approval — likely before the end of the year. And an array of stakeholders are wondering whether a lame-duck BPW — Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), two of the three members on the board, leave office in mid-January — ought to be voting on such a long and consequential contract.

Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City), who was just elected to replace Franchot, told Maryland Matters last week that she has some reservations about the current BPW awarding the contract before she takes office, even though she conceded the board members are within their rights to do so.

“They’re still in office. I respect the process,” she said. “They were elected to four-year terms. On the other hand, this is an incredibly long contract. I look forward to learning more about it and seeing what happens.”

Asked whether Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) preferred to see the vote on the contract proposal deferred until he takes office, a spokesperson, Brian Adam Jones replied, “While the governor-elect does not decide when this Board of Public Works votes, it’s always his preference to have a seat at the table.”

Last month, the third member of the Board of Public Works, state Treasurer Dereck Davis (D), who will remain on the job, also expressed mixed feelings about whether Franchot and Hogan should vote on the BWI Marshall deal, and promised to scrutinize the recommended contract very closely.

New hires pay off

For the past 18 years, the concession contract at BWI Marshall has been held by Fraport, a major player in the airport management industry, or its corporate predecessors. Fraport, according to multiple sources, is one of the companies bidding for the new contract. It currently is running concessions operations at the airports in Nashville and Cleveland, and has a piece of the concessions operations at JFK Airport in New York and Newark International Airport in New Jersey.

Riddick created New Market Development in 2021, and poached several top Fraport executives to help him with the BWI Marshall Airport contract. New Market has also partnered with HMSHost, another well-established airport concession firm, according to people familiar with the industry,

The alliances have paid off: The original RFP that the state issued to solicit bidders required that companies bidding for the new contract have a minimum of seven consecutive years within the past decade running an airport concession. That requirement would have disqualified New Market Development from competing for the bid.

But weeks later, the RFP was changed, without explanation, to merely require that executives associated with the company have a minimum of seven consecutive years over the past decade managing an airport concession contract — a move that put Riddick’s company back in the running.

The RFP was also altered in a way that benefited Riddick when it came to a provision on minority subcontracting, as Riddick’s company is minority owned. That change, however, appears to have benefited one of the other bidders as well.

The Maryland Aviation Administration has declined to comment on the contracting process while it is still underway. Bidders are also prevented from speaking publicly.

Throughout his attempt to win the new airport concession contract, Riddick has worked with Bruce Bereano, one of the most politically plugged-in and powerful lobbyists in Annapolis. Bereano is a registered lobbyist for Riddick’s other concessions company, Great Foods, and lobbies on behalf of other entities that do business at BWI Marshall Airport. But he has never registered to lobby for Riddick’s new company seeking the airport concessions contract.

If New Market Development’s bid comes before the current Board of Public Works, before Hogan and Franchot leave office in January, the company will encounter friendly faces. Both Riddick and Bereano supported Franchot, the state comptroller, in the Democratic primary for governor this year, and Bereano has been the biggest cheerleader in the Annapolis lobbying corps for Hogan over the past nine years.

Riddick and Davis, the state treasurer, have been fixtures in Prince George’s County government and politics for several decades, and Bereano regularly testified on behalf of his clients before the House Economic Matters Committee, which Davis chaired for 19 years before the becoming treasurer in January.

But Riddick also appears to be trying to endear himself to the incoming members of the Board of Public Works, Moore and Lierman.

Campaign finance records with the Maryland State Board of Elections show that Riddick contributed $3,500 to Moore’s campaign since the Democratic primary, and another $11,000 to Moore’s running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller (D). But that $11,000, if correctly reported, exceeds the $6,000 limit that a candidate for state or local office in Maryland can accept from an individual.

Similarly, campaign finance records show Riddick donating $7,516 to Lierman since 2021, which also exceeds the limit from an individual donor. The Lierman campaign is in the process of refunding the overage.

Ricky Smith, the executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, who was appointed to his position by Hogan, co-hosted a fundraiser for Moore in September. Campaign finance records show Smith cut the governor-elect a $100 check and also reported $2,765 in in-kind contributions to Moore’s campaign — presumably associated with the Sept. 26 fundraiser at the Pasadena home of Drew Hawkins, a former Morgan Stanley executive.

Executives from two companies that hold food concessions contracts at BWI Marshall Airport — subcontractors to the overall concessions contract holder — also served as co-sponsors of the Sept. 26 event. One of them, Terri Roberts, vice president of Onsite Retailers, was appointed to Moore’s transition team last week.

Asked whether Moore was comfortable with Smith co-hosting a fundraiser for him, even though it could be interpreted as Smith’s attempt to keep his job, Jones, Moore’s spokesperson, said, “The governor-elect’s sole lens for every decision is what will be in the best interest of the state of Maryland and Maryland families.”

Regular appeal route unavailable

The losing bidders — and there are believed to be three or four, based on conversations with industry executives and experts — are hardly novices in the political game. They have top-tier lobbyists in Maryland and in multiple other states. They also have attorneys, deep pockets, and well-oiled PR machines.

But if the contract is eventually awarded to New Market Development, the runners-up will not have one conventional avenue in which to appeal the Board of Public Works decision. That’s because some major contracts from Maryland Department of Transportation agencies cannot be appealed to the state’s Board of Contract Appeals, where most protests over state contracts go first.

Instead, the losing bidders would have to file a notice of appeal directly to the Maryland Aviation Administration, followed by a lawsuit, if they want to attempt to overturn the MAA’s recommendation — or the Board of Public Works’ eventual vote — on the contract decision for a BWI Marshall concession operator.

Or, they can comfort themselves with a line in the letter they received last week telling them that they were not the Maryland Aviation Administration’s preferred vendor: “MDOT MAA sincerely appreciates [your company’s] interest in the concession activities at BWI Marshall Airport. Please be assured your non-selection will not be an influence or factor in consideration for any future project(s) with the MDOT MAA.”