Tisha Skinner operates the only Rita’s Italian Ice franchise at an airport anywhere, in Terminal C at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. She also has a Smoothie King franchise in Terminal D14 at BWI.
Like a lot of vendors who run businesses in the airport, she’s excited about the multimillion-dollar improvements the state plans to make over the next several years at BWI. But increasingly, she and other business owners of color fear that they won’t be part of the airport redevelopment.
“We’re just worried about our livelihoods,” Skinner said.
Three weeks ago, Skinner and seven other Maryland-based vendors who operate businesses at BWI under a federal program for historically disadvantaged contractors wrote to Gov. Wes Moore (D) and other state officials, expressing concerns that they may soon be evicted from the airport. They say the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Aviation Administration are making very few provisions to ensure their long-term security and success.
“This is not a game for us,” the business operators wrote to Moore. “It is deadly serious.”
These vendors, who operate fast food restaurants, convenience stores and souvenir stands within the airport, worry that they are going to get squeezed out now that the airport has solicited bids for a contract to oversee all the concessions operations at BWI. That process has been delayed by over a year, after allegations raised in Maryland Matters that the procurement might have been rigged to favor one of the companies bidding for the long-term, lucrative contract.
Scores of vendors operate businesses in the airport, and they must negotiate their leases with the company that holds the concessions contract from state government. The state reopened the procurement process in October, and the companies interested in bidding submitted their proposals on Monday.
Under the state’s request for proposal (RFP), the document soliciting and laying out the parameters for the bids, the Maryland Department of Transportation, which took over the process from the Maryland Aviation administration, urged bidders to make accommodations for vendors currently there under the federal Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) rule.
But Skinner and the other businesspeople who signed the letters to Moore and to other officials say that while there may be language in the RFP urging the concessionaire to work with minority-operated businesses, there are inadequate safeguards in the RFP to protect incumbent, locally-based vendors and no guarantees that they will be able to continue doing business at the airport.
“It’s not explicitly spelled out,” said Ali Goraya, who operates a Subway and a Qdoba at BWI and has run businesses there for nine years. “It could be someone who’s living in Kansas City and sitting there and in business there.”
Both Goraya and Skinner said that the trend in the airport industry is for larger conglomerates to win contracts for food, beverage and service concessions like theirs, and that airport operating authorities often find it easier to do business with bigger operations that take on business partners to meet certain federal disadvantaged contractor goals.
“They’re cutting deals behind closed doors with big operators,” Goraya said.
During a procurement process, state officials and representatives of companies bidding on a contract are not allowed to speak publicly about details. But in an email this week to Maryland Matters, David Broughton, a spokesperson for MDOT, said, “Since Day One, the Moore-Miller Administration has exercised an unprecedented level of intentionality and focus on ensuring equitable access for minority business participation in Maryland’s procurement process.”
Broughton said the agency is committed to meeting a 30.32% goal for disadvantaged contractors under the ACDBE program and is setting up micro businesses and a small business incubator program to encourage companies owned by people of color to win contracts at the airport.
“The Request For Proposal (RFP) document underscores the Moore-Miller Administration’s expectation that the successful proposer will share its commitment to expanding economic opportunities for local, small, and minority businesses and we look forward to working with the successful offeror to ensure that the program meets these expectations, commitments, and objectives,” he said.
Skinner and Goraya said that earlier this fall, the state invited the ACDBE vendors who are doing business at BWI to reach out to likely bidders for the broad concession contract to discuss the possibility of remaining at the airport. They said they and other vendors met with four possible bidders — the final roster of companies seeking the large concessions contract is not currently a matter of public record — and came away with the impression that they would not be able to keep their airport slots with three of those companies.
This has dismayed the incumbent business operators, who kept their operations open during the pandemic “when the airport was a ghost town,” Goraya said, with vague promises from state officials that they would be rewarded.
Goraya and Skinner would not discuss details of their conversations with specific airport concessions operators who might be bidding for the BWI contract, but said they spoke to:
- Fraport USA, which has held the BWI concessions contract for two decades;
- Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste, S.A.B. de C.V., a Mexican company commonly known as ASUR;
- Vantage Airport Group;
- Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield Airports
It is not known if all four companies actually submitted bids for the contract or if any latecomers emerged in the final days of bidding, but the airport concession industry in the U.S. is small and generally dominated by about half a dozen firms. For example, Fraport, the current contractor at BWI, also runs concessions at airports in Nashville and Cleveland and has contracts in terminals at JFK International Airport in New York and Newark International Airport. Earlier this fall, the company won a 10-year lease to develop and manage concessions at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport.
Because the procurement process to run the major concessions operation at BWI has already been delayed by more than a year, many vendors are already operating on month to month leases that the concessions operator could terminate at any time. Skinner said her Rita’s store has a lease that runs until 2026 but that level of security is rare among the vendors who have reached out to the state for help.
Skinner lamented that when the state reissued its call for bidders on the BWI concessions contract, months after Moore took office and vowed to make the process more equitable and free from corruption, “they over-corrected.”
“They were trying to make it fairer, but they made it less fair for minority contractors,” she said.
Skinner and the seven other vendors who signed the letters to Moore and other officials last month are hoping MDOT will issue amendments to the concession contract RFP that would give greater consideration to their status as incumbent businesses at the airport.
“For all that we’ve been through, we’ve been partners [with the state] for nine years, through the dog years, the dog days,” Goraya said. “There are consequences to this procurement.”