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$8.5B O’Hare 21 Project Promotes Partnerships and Unbundled Trade Packages to Create Opportunities for Small and Diverse Firms

by: Julie Devine
Bowa Construction will expand their aviation experience as part of the O'Hare 21 project in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of AECOM Hunt Clayco Bowa team)
Bowa Construction will expand their aviation experience as part of the O'Hare 21 project in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of AECOM Hunt Clayco Bowa team)
As Chicago O’Hare International Airport undertakes the $8.5 billion O’Hare 21 project, the biggest expansion effort in the airport’s 60-year history, they’ve included ambitious goals for participation by small, minority-owned, and women-owned businesses, as well as a diverse workforce.

Bowa Construction of Chicago, an MBE and DBE firm, plays a significant role in advancing those goals. In July, AECOM Hunt and Clayco added Bowa and their aviation experience to their joint venture team providing construction management services.

“This project is definitely a game changer,” said Tiffany Green, Bowa’s Vice President of Strategic Development. “It gives our organization the platform to extend our aviation expertise in a significant way, making us more competitive for additional aviation projects, whether they’re in Chicago or other cities. It also signifies moving forward with more diversity and inclusion in an industry that’s typically not very diverse. We’re excited to help lead the way and bring others along with us.”

The O’Hare 21 project will increase the airport’s overall terminal square footage by more than 60 percent and aircraft gate frontage by 25 percent, while also modernizing and streamlining travelers’ experiences with better amenities and increased options. Funded mostly by passenger fees, landing fees, and other income, the program is scheduled for completion in 2028.

Three main pieces will be phased to minimize disruptions and maintain the airport’s capacity: expansion of Terminal 5; construction of two satellite concourses; and, once the new concourses are complete, construction of a new Global Terminal that will more than double the space of the old Terminal 2 it replaces.

Three CMRs, Many Opportunities
Before joining the O’Hare 21 project, Bowa became the first African American-owned prime contractor to complete a concessions project at O’Hare, then the first African American-owned prime contractor for a project run by the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), the agency responsible for O’Hare administration and operations.
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“We started out in the concessions market about five years ago focused on a couple of different entities at O’Hare, including Starbucks,” said Tim Scholten, Bowa Vice President.

In their first CDA project as prime contractor, Bowa completed a $6 million police station expansion. The project transformed a vacated warehouse into the airport’s police headquarters with offices, a containment facility, locker rooms and other amenities, and exterior improvements.

For the O’Hare 21 project, the CDA hired three different construction management teams, including the joint venture with AECOM Hunt, Clayco, and Bowa. Construction Management at Risk (CMR) delivery was chosen in order to achieve more cost and schedule certainty and maximize opportunities for firms of various sizes.

As the O’Hare 21 program progresses, the CDA releases individual projects. “The three CMR teams are basically short-listed to compete on those based on qualifications and overall project-related deliverables,” Scholten said.

Once a CMR procures a project, they release public bid packages for subcontractors, unbundling trade packages into smaller chunks to provide opportunities for smaller firms to successfully work at the airport and increase their capabilities and range.

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So far, the joint venture of AECOM Hunt, Clayco, and Bowa started pre-construction work on an elevated parking structure, with construction expected to start next year.

“Ideally, we might see more of the projects starting by now but, as with everything, approval processes and funding allocations have slowed because of COVID-19,” Scholten said. “Dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s takes a little longer because not everybody is in the office.”

Growing Capacity and Diversity
As more projects move to construction, “We’ll utilize our relationships with the industry and the community to be more transparent and bring more opportunities to contractors that had not been exposed but want opportunities at the airport,” Green said. “We’ll also make sure there’s a more diverse workforce.”

In the joint venture contract, the CDA specified at least 26 percent MBE participation and 6 percent WBE. “That’s the floor for us, and we’re challenging our joint venture partners, as well as others, to have more diverse participation and be more inclusive to improve upon those numbers,” Green said.

To attract diverse contractors, “There’s a constant effort to ensure the outreach is going on and the message is shared with as many contractors throughout the Chicago area as possible,” Scholten said.

“The pandemic does make it a little more challenging because we don’t have the face-to-face interaction,” Green added. “We’re relying on technology and virtual outreach sessions to get the word out to not only subcontractors but also the potential workforce about the future opportunity.”

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In each project, Bowa and their partners will work to develop mentor/protégé relationships. “The concept is to take the folks who’ve had experience at O’Hare or are larger contractors used to handling multimillion-dollar contract scopes and encourage them to bring in partners at a true equity-stake level,” Scholten said.

“Obviously these smaller firms are very qualified and specialized,” he added. “They can perform the work on their own – but I think working in the aviation space with contract values that large, you need to create partnerships so certain contractors aren’t automatically ruled out because they don’t have the bonding capacity or depth in their staff.”

In the partner relationships, “The protégé gets exposed to the different regulations and restrictions at the airport,” Green explained. “It’s a totally different world than a street-side location. They can learn the process and understand the administrative support and paperwork that needs to be completed. That not only affords them the opportunity to participate, but it’s a true education endeavor.”

Ultimately, “It really comes down to the growth potential for firms like ours and firms smaller than ours,” Scholten said. “Diverse-owned businesses are now getting to be part of the conversation, the way it should be. We’re getting the opportunity to develop as firms because of such a large program. It’s exciting to see the firms that are jumping at the chance to grow and execute this work.”

O’Hare 21 Project Overview
The $8.5 billion, multi-year O’Hare 21 project consists of three main pieces:
  • $1.2 Billion Terminal 5 Expansion: Broke ground in March 2019. Includes 25 percent more gate capacity, 70 percent more space for passenger amenities, a new baggage handling system, and a new parking garage.
  • $1.4 Billion Satellite Concourses: Construction expected to begin in 2022. With nearly double the width of existing terminal concourses, the two new facilities will incorporate nature, daylight, and flexible gates to accommodate narrow and wide-body airplanes.
  • $2.2 Billion Global Terminal: Scheduled to break ground at the end of 2023 and open in 2028. Designed to enhance passenger and baggage connectivity and increase traveler amenities, the new, 2.2 million-square-foot facility will replace Terminal 2 with a light-filled arrivals hall, while integrating existing Terminals 1 and 3.
Bowa’s Story
Born in Nigeria, Nosa Ehimwenman, Bowa’s President, CEO, and Founder, immigrated to the U.S. at age six. He named his company for the Nigerian word meaning “build your future,” which workers chanted to motivate each other during construction of the Benin Kingdom in the 1400s.

Since the company’s beginnings in 2009, Bowa has grown from three employees to more than 50, with two Chicago locations and satellite offices in Washington, D.C, Columbus, Ohio, and Champagne, Illinois. In 2018, Bowa was named one of the Fortune 100 Fastest-Growing Inner-City Companies.

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“We’re now growing a multimillion-dollar, highly innovative construction business with highly talented people and expansion plans in the works,” Scholten said.

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