Since the recently completed renovations to the Tulsa International Airport, city officials hope the $34 million in improvements go a long way toward making a positive first impression on visitors. When travelers look at its gleaming glass corridors and new, state-of-the art security checkpoints, Mayor Kathy Taylor and members of the Tulsa Airport Improvement Trust hope they see it as the front porch of a bustling, progressive and cosmopolitan city.
That isn't what B.D. Tidmore sees, though. When he looks at the airport in all of its shiny new trappings, he sees a monument to an aloof city government's ambitions, built on the backs of hard-working small business owners.
Tidmore is president of Quantum Electric, Inc., which was one of the subcontractors working on the project under Oklahoma City-based general contractor J.L.Walker Construction, Inc.
Tidmore's Tulsa-based company, along with 15 other subcontractors, has filed a lawsuit against TAIT for $790,000 that they claim the agency owes them for work completed and materials purchased for the airport renovations. Quantum's share in that claim is about $150,000.
Tidmore said he enthusiastically took the job when J.L. Walker Construction offered, having contracted with the company before with positive outcomes.
Also, the scale and promised compensation for the job was quite a bit beyond what Tidmore was used to, with a contract for $725,000 to provide power, lighting and security wiring for the new security check-in area, as well as power to the restaurants and shops that would be built thereafter.
"That was the biggest job we've ever done," he said, explaining that $100,000 is the most for which Quantum Electric had contracted prior to the TAIT job.
When Tidmore's company began its work in February of 2005, operations progressed smoothly. They even won a couple of awards from the national Associated Builders and Contractors for their work.
The general contractor also commended their work.
"Quantum Electric, Inc. has provided us with quality workmanship . . . They have proven to be a very reliable and efficient company. We are very satisfied with the quality of their work and the dependability of their employees," said Lewis Pontikos, vice president of J.L. Walker Construction.
Things started getting rocky a month or so into it, though, Tidmore said.
"We starting getting into disagreements with TAIT and Benham," he said.
Benham Cos. LLC was the architectural and construction management firm directing the project.
"The rumor was that they weren't happy with our progress," Tidmore said, even though their work was moving along according to schedule.
"It all started getting bad when asbestos was found," he continued.
The discovery of asbestos in the ceiling of the terminal in April caused an eight-week delay while federal workers removed it.
Representatives of TAIT and Benham, though, insisted that Quantum and other subcontractors finish the project according to the original timeframe, Tidmore said.
So, he and his crew did their best to work around the contaminated area, he said.
"We had 15 electricians working on it, but we went down to three and we were just doing loose ends and anything we could," Tidmore recounted.
As Tidmore tells it, when it became apparent that J.L. Walker's subcontractors weren't going to be able work through the delay as if nothing had happened, TAIT terminated the contract with the construction company in May.
"It's like TAIT and Benham has some sort of personal disagreement with J.L. Walker," said Tidmore. "I think it's just that 'good ol' boy'-thing between TAIT and Benham," he added.
So, with only about 5 percent of the work remaining to be completed, Tidmore and his crew closed up shop and left the project after having secured non-returnable materials they had purchased for the project totaling about $40,000.
"We had light fixtures on the job and gave (TAIT) a credit for the labor and for material which we could not return since it had been more than one year since we purchased it," he said. "They kept our lights and installed them on a new contract with someone else."
Along with keeping their materials without compensating them, TAIT also withheld Quantum's 10 percent retainage fee, amounting to about $70,000, Tidmore said.
Eventually, he and other subcontractors who had not been fully paid by J.L. Walker Construction, since it had not been paid by TAIT, filed suit.
Tidmore said TAIT claimed that it had overpaid J.L. Walker.
That's Tidmore's side of the story, anyway.
TAIT's side of the story, though, is a little harder to come by.
"Those are some of the facts that are in dispute in this lawsuit and I can't comment on pending litigation," said Nancy McNair, legal counsel for TAIT, when asked about Tidmore's claims.
Representatives from J.L. Walker Construction also declined to comment for the same stated reason.
Benham's representatives did not return telephone calls.
Tidmore isn't the only small business owner who has been taken for a ride by the Tulsa Airport, he said.
"I've spoken to other contractors who have had similar experiences working at the airport," he said. "They told me they run you around and make sure you don't make any money."
One such contractor with whom Tidmore had spoken, though, takes a more equanimous approach.
"The negative experience wouldn't be directed at the airport--we did business through the general contractor," he said.
(He asked that neither he nor the company for which he works be identified, so we'll just call him "Earl".)
Earl said most general contractors pay their subcontractors what they're owed whether they themselves have been paid for the work or not. While he isn't happy about the delay in payment, he said he expects it all to even out through the course of the lawsuit.
"I'm going to get paid; it's only a matter of time," he said.
While Earl places the bulk of whatever blame there is with J.L. Walker Construction, he did confirm Tidmore's generalization about what kind of experience a contractor can expect when taking work from the Tulsa Airport.
"They really string things out, but they hold you on a real tight schedule and there's a penalty if you don't keep to that schedule," he said.
"I understand where (Tidmore) is coming from--he's really having a hard time with this," Earl added.
While it seems to be common knowledge among contractors that taking work at the airport is a dubious venture, Earl said he didn't want to be identified because he'll probably wind up depending on the Tulsa Airport for work again, and speaking out publicly against them would be tantamount to "cutting off your nose to spite your face."
"We're kind of on thin ice," Earl added.
Thin ice or not, Southwest Terrazzo co-owner Italia Tuohy has no qualms about being identified or with speaking publicly against the parties involved.
"How would you like to open up the newspaper and be told how beautiful the terrazzo work is at the airport when you did it and didn't get paid for it?" said a livid Tuohy.
"I don't really care how beautiful the terrazzo job is--I just want to get paid for it," she added.
Tuohy is another plaintiff in the lawsuit with which Tidmore is involved. Unlike Tidmore, though, she said her company hasn't been paid a penny for its work.
Southwest Terrazzo was involved with two separate projects at the Tulsa International Airport, she said. The first was the project for which J.L. Walker Construction had contracted, the second was the flooring for the Cherry Street Café and the food court.
Based on her two experiences, Tuohy said there is plenty of blame to go around.
"At first, I leaned toward J.L. Walker being the bad guy because they weren't big enough for the airport project and didn't have enough people to process all the paperwork needed for us to get paid," she said.
After her experience with the second project, Tuohy said she realized much of the problem was also in how the airport authorities managed the projects.
"It was a battle--there was a lot of scamming going on. They really put us through the gauntlet," she said.
While Tuohy had no shortage of unflattering things to say about TAIT and J.L. Walker Construction, her main beef is with the system itself.
"It's such an extreme joke," she said. "For many general contractors--they use the 'not getting paid by the customer' as an excuse not to pay the subcontractors," she continued, adding that Earl's generalization (that contractors typically pay subcontractors regardless of whether the customer pays) is "a fallacy."
She also pointed out that the scenario is not unique to the Tulsa International Airport, since Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport is also involved in similar lawsuits with numerous subcontractors.
For the two projects completed by her company, Tuohy said she is owed a total of approximately $100,000, including attorney fees.
Tidmore said, "I am personally out my final draw plus retainage, plus interest to suppliers and the bank, and attorney fees, which is easily over $150,000 total."
And that isn't pocket change to a small business-owner like Tidmore.
"$100,000 is our line of credit and cash flow," he said. "Fortunately, our suppliers have been very good about this because they know what's happening."
He and other subcontractors have already given their deposition, but Tidmore said representatives from Benham are holding up the process.
"Our attorneys have tried to get Benham to agree to a deposition date since before November 2006," he said. "That hasn't happened. TAIT has and they pretty much testified that we did our job and were owed. Now we have a pre-trial date of April 14."
Since these statements, a representative of Benham has been ordered by the court to give a deposition on April 26. Based on past experience, though, Tidmore isn't hopeful that the matter is on its way to resolution.
"They are more powerful than us so that may get postponed," Tidmore continued. "We hope not. We think they are trying to drag this out until we give up, and we are a small company. The anxiety and difficulties this has caused for us has been almost unbearable at times."
While the ball is finally rolling, albeit slowly, Tidmore said it's been a long time coming and that he had made repeated prior appeals to city officials for help, but to no avail.
Prior to the end of his term in office, Tidmore said he asked Mayor Bill LaFortune for help.
"He said he would look into it, but he did nothing after he talked with his lawyer friends and TAIT, if he even did that," he said.
Tidmore then appealed to Mayor Kathy Taylor, he said. Around November or December of last year, a representative from her office called him and said she was interested in helping, he recounted. That was the last he heard from her, though.
When asked about it, Taylor's press secretary Kim MacLeod said the mayor could not comment on pending litigation.
Tidmore also contacted members of the City Council about his plight.
"I e-mailed all the city councilors last year asking for help," he said. "No one responded. I asked my councilor for this area, Roscoe Turner, twice and he said he would come by but never did."
When questioned, Turner acknowledged that he knows of Tidmore and of Quantum Electric, but said he didn't know about his situation.
"I don't remember it, but I'll try to get with him and find out what's going on. I'll check into it," said Turner.
"I really think that it could have been resolved if we could have had help from the City of Tulsa," lamented Tidmore. "Also, city government says they are trying to support local businesses but are quick to bail out large companies, like what happened at the arena, but we can't even get anyone to help or even listen to us."
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