City may avoid 'food fight' over airport concession deal: Move to extend lucrative contract without public bidding draws criticism

Sep. 12--Mayor Bill White and the City Council are poised today to extend a lucrative airport food contract for at least eight years rather than go through a potentially messy competitive bid process. The concession contract, which is scheduled to...


Sep. 12--Mayor Bill White and the City Council are poised today to extend a lucrative airport food contract for at least eight years rather than go through a potentially messy competitive bid process.

The concession contract, which is scheduled to expire next June, has not been put out to bid since 1990. The original agreement has been amended three times.

"You're essentially making an evergreen contract here," City Controller Annise Parker said. "I'm also really surprised that an administration that really prides itself on its transparency has made a decision in the back room."

The deal would give JDDA Concession Management, owned by local businessman Jason Yoo, until the end of 2016 to manage the food courts in Terminal C at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, with an option for another two years after that.

Since 2003, Yoo has donated at least $28,000 to the campaigns of eight council members and $1,260 to White.

The city's awarding of food and beverage concessions for Bush and Hobby airports has led to public and politicized "food fights" in the past. The concessions are highly desirable; JDDA took in more than $46 million in revenue during the past three fiscal years, and turned over about $4.6 million of that to the city.

Officials sought extension

The mayor said he initially wanted to rebid the contract, but said he was approached by some council members on behalf of JDDA, which wanted the extension.

The mayor agreed to negotiate an amended contract, but added conditions: JDDA had to bring in a partner with national experience in airport food management, boost the city's cut on food and beverage sales, and commit to spending $10.5 million for new food courts.

If the concession were publicly bid, the city probably could get only $7 million for renovations, airport officials said.

JDDA has brought in Creative Host Services, which has food concessions at 40 U.S. airports, to serve as a 49 percent equity partner in the contract.

"We would only extend if we thought we could get something as good or better as going out for an RFP (request for proposals)," White said. He said the donations he received in 2003 from Yoo had no effect on his decision.

"This is a great deal for the airports," airport spokesman Richard A. Fernandez said. "Our percentages are increasing. We get a brand-new food court for the travelers."

White declined to name the council members who had stepped forward on behalf of JDDA. But when asked, Councilmen Jarvis Johnson and Michael Berry said they had.

"They had, I guess, a slump in business," said Berry, who received a $5,000 contribution from Yoo in 2005. "And they didn't think it was fair that the contract was up as soon as it was."

JDDA purchased the contract from the previous vendor, Entertainment One Inc., in 2005, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and renovations at Terminal C meant lower-than-expected revenues, according to JDDA's attorney, Robert Miller.

Johnson said the extension was the "right thing for the city to do," since food sales declined during the airport renovations.

"The new deal gives us what we need. It also gives the city more income," the councilman said. Johnson received a $2,000 contribution from Yoo this May. Yoo's daughter also worked briefly on Johnson's staff in early 2006. But Johnson and Berry denied any political favors or conflict of interest.

Councilman Ronald Green, who got $5,000 from Yoo in March, also supports the contract extension.

"I wanted us not to have a major food fight," Green said. Extending the contract allows "continuity" and brings in more money for the city, he said.

Voice of dissent

But Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said the council should not take the "easy road" of avoiding a public bid process.

"We're elected to make the tough decisions," she said. "I don't think we should shy away from the controversial issues because it might not be something we're interested in working on."

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