Philly public works program lights the way to contracts for diverse talent

Robin Miller’s fascination with light began on a regular Sunday morning at 5-years-old with her family in the Germantown rowhouse she grew up in. Miller was playing with a butter knife, reflecting the morning sunlight onto a wall.

“As the knife was moving around,so were these little flashes of light. So that’s what started it all,” Miller said.

Robin Miller of the Philadelphia-based Miller Design Group will design the lighting for the $4 million Ziehler Playground Rebuild
Robin Miller of the Philadelphia-based Miller Design Group will design the lighting for the $4 million Ziehler Playground Rebuild. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A couple of decades later, Miller lives in Roxborough and owns Miller Design Group, a Philadelphia-based company she founded in 2007 to provide lighting design services to architectural, theatrical, and interior design firms.

She’s racked up design awards and recognition over the years, including the Community Design Award from the American Institute of Architects in 2017 with the Frankford Community Development Corporation for her lighting design streetscape improvements at the intersection of Margaret, Arrott, and Paul Streets with Frankford Avenue.

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She also won recognition in 2012 from the Illuminating Engineering Society for her lighting of a permanent exhibition at Independence Mall, The President’s House, but even as she progresses in the private sector, Miller has struggled to get city contracts in her hometown.

Until now. She was recently chosen to design the lighting for a $4 million upgrade of the Ziehler Playground in Olney which will bring new play spinners, swings, basketball courts, and, of course, new lighting. Construction is expected to begin in 2022.

Miller got the contract because of a program that launched in 2019 called Rebuild Ready. Created by the Kenney administration, the program provides administrative and technical support to minority and women-owned small businesses as part of Kenney’s signature Rebuild initiative — a $425 million public works program funded by the city’s tax on sugary beverages.

Miller is eager to put her talents to work for her hometown, she said.

There are “lots of features that are normally reserved for high-end projects that we can bring to this neighborhood space, bringing equity and beauty through lighting,” she said.

Rebuild Ready

Timothy Roundtree, the deputy director of diversity and inclusion for Rebuild, said some of the biggest hurdles for Black and brown business contractors seeking city contracts include financial planning and navigating the procurement process.

“We want to see the majority, if not all in the Rebuild Ready program, to get contract opportunities that they…historically would not have gotten if they didn’t seek this type of training and this kind of assistance,” Roundtree said. “We can use this program to help the city overall develop a stronger pipeline.”

Over three months, the program trains small businesses to have all the skills to compete for public works contracts.

The training focuses on bidding on Rebuild projects, getting proper certifications to be recognized as a minority/woman business enterprise, bonding and insurance, financing, and cash flow management. It also offers additional technical assistance such as blueprint reading, project management, and contractor qualification application assistance. It is a once-a-week virtual class over three months with 24 workshops and an email toolkit provided to all businesses. It also features a three-part marketing webinar about creating a website, promoting through social media, and creating ads.

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Rebuild covers all the costs of those participating in the program. For this fiscal year, the city budgeted $555,260 for the program.

Ninety-two companies have completed the program so far, and 88.5% are owned by people of color. Each cohort is about 15 people, and the average is three sessions per year. So far, 13 participating companies have won city contracts, a figure city officials expect to grow as more Rebuild projects move into construction.

Kira Strong, the executive director of Rebuild, said it’s all about helping contractors no matter how new or experienced the company. All levels of expertise are invited to go through the program.

The other element of the program is networking. The sessions are designed to give the space for businesses to share tips and learn from each other. In addition, participants  attend pre-bid meetings, and subcontractors — like Miller — meet primary contractors.

“Our goal was for it not just to check the boxes you attended a class but how to transform this into actual work,” Strong said.

The formula worked in Miller’s case. During Miller’s time in the program, SALT Design Studio,

the primary contractor doing the landscape architecture, needed a light designer and knew Rebuild Ready was building a pipeline of potential partners.

It so happened also to be the playground Miller already had her eye on. SALT reached out to Miller to personally select her as a subcontractor for the team because of her 30 years of lighting design experience.

City contracts often mean more staff, which was a big selling point for Miller considering she usually works by herself. After getting the $25,495 Ziehler job, she was able to get an engineer and another lighting designer to help with the project.

At the time she got involved with Rebuild Ready, Miller was already speaking with The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit organization designed to help minority entrepreneurs. She had connected with the center, a Rebuild Ready partner, to renew her certifications as a woman and minority-owned business and get some help with networking and professional development. When she got the center’s email blast about the program in her in-box, she knew she had found what she was looking for.

The city aims to have a third of companies contracted for a city project to be minority-owned and run — just above the city’s 2020 participation rate of 30%.  Rebuild, however, passed into law with the expectation that a larger portion of its contractors be minority or women-owned businesses. So far, the city is exceeding that goal with 68% of Rebuild contract dollars going to those firms, according to the Kenney administration.

Rebuild doesn’t offer loans to small businesses, but it will connect them to the Enterprise Center and Surety Bond Associates to get financing to secure and complete city contracts.

Strong also wants to be able to track where these businesses get contracts after Rebuild projects, like if they work for another city department or in the private sector. Rebuild wants to

both use minority-owned businesses and encourage them to have more work in the future.

“They do well on this contract and then they’re now positioned really well for that next job,” Strong said.

Community Engagement

Donna Griffin, founder of Community Capacity Builders partnered with the city to spearhead the engagement piece of the project.

Griffin said a key aspect of her outreach is understanding the makeup of the neighborhood and talking to resident leaders. They can mean block captains or residents in the registered community organizations. A big part of this project is who should be part of this work.

“I love this work because it does give residents a voice and this wonderful public asset in their neighborhood,” Griffin said.

The public discussions happened primarily before the pandemic. Through this work for about two years, she said she was hearing needs that include new basketball courts, more youth programming, better lighting for increased safety, and additional public art. Before the pandemic, she hosted public events at Ziehler and when the shutdowns made that impossible, she hosted virtual meetings.

Neighbors talked about working on a mural during these meetings and the city is considering making one that honors people who have lost their lives to gun violence in the neighborhood. There will be an RFP soliciting neighborhood artists later this year.

Griffin considers the engagement work one of the most important aspects. “The most important reason is creating a sense of ownership,” she said. “Many of these [rec centers] have fallen into a high state of disrepair and so they haven’t necessarily been utilized the way that they were intended to be. This really helps to reactivate these sites for people.”

Robin Miller of the Philadelphia-based Miller Design Group will design the lighting for the $4 million Ziehler Playground Rebuild
Robin Miller of the Philadelphia-based Miller Design Group will design the lighting for the $4 million Ziehler Playground Rebuild. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Miller also made it a priority to speak to the neighborhood about what was most important to them as far as lighting. Immediately, parents complained about the fields being too dark at night.

Because the field didn’t have any lights, parents would line up cars on Clarkson Avenue and Oxford Street and put on their headlights so their kids could play football and baseball after the sun went down.

When Miller is done, she hopes the headlights won’t be necessary anymore — and that it won’t be only increased safety her lights add, but the ability to see the joy and assets in the community that are already there.

“That’s thoughtful lighting,” she said.

This story is part of a series called The Future of Work, which explores what work will look like as we move beyond the pandemic. It’s produced with funding from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. PlanPhilly is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility

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