The Denver City Council entered into a predevelopment agreement Monday with Spanish company Ferrovial Airports for a massive renovation of the Jeppesen Terminal at Denver International Airport.
But the two council members who voted no — Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech — as well as several who voted yes said the contractor needs to do more to ensure that the people who work at DIA now still work there when the project is done.
Though there isn’t a guarantee that Ferrovial Airports will be the private partner in a public-private partnership to remake the airport, the City Council action represents a significant step with financial penalties attached. If the city ultimately decides to go with another company, it will pay Ferrovial up to $9 million for the work it invests in preparing for the development agreement to be presented to the public in about six months.
The Jeppesen Terminal renovation is driven in large part by the need to reconfigure the security area, which has been a bottleneck since post-9/11 security measures were implemented 15 years ago. But with that need comes the opportunity to redesign the airport terminal for the future.
DIA CEO Kim Day and executives from Ferrovial described an initiative at Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom, also run by Ferrovial, to offer continuing education that allows airport workers to apply for better jobs and have life-long careers, and they said the new airport will offer even more jobs than the existing concessions arrangement.
But they hedged when pressed to commit to guaranteeing jobs for existing workers. As Ortega asked more detailed questions about what happens to the people who work at the airport now, there was an awkward pause and then Day made something explicit that perhaps should have been obvious all along.
All concessions that currently operate in the Jepessen Terminal — this is the part before you go through security — will have to close during construction. And as the terminal is reconfigured, Ferrovial will offer openings for new concessions, and people who work at DIA now can apply for those jobs.
The labor issue has been simmering for a while. At Mayor Michael Hancock’s State of the City address, which was delivered in the plaza between the new Westin Hotel and the main terminal, workers and organizers with the union Unite Here stood in the back asking about their future.
Abel Villa, 50, said he’s worked as a bartender in the terminal for 15 years.
“We would like to have that opportunity with the new company, to get priority,” he said.
“I’m very worried. This is my livelihood. I have a great job, great benefits. I had hoped to retire from this company.”
Ortega said the city should consider having a policy on job security for existing workers and make it a condition for companies that contract with the city.
Labor practices and jobs weren’t the only concerns. On everyone’s minds was the recent finding by an independent auditing firm that the airport hotel had gone nearly $220 million over budget. City Council members wanted to know if Ferrovial’s plan is the right plan and how they know it’s the right plan. The airport needs more businesses to serve a flying public that gets larger every month, but some city officials worried that if there are too many businesses in the wrong parts of the airport, they won’t make enough money to be successful.
And they also wanted to know about bankruptcies on two U.S. toll road projects handled by Ferrovial and allegations of a kickback scheme in Europe, both of which were raised by the Unite Here.
Members of the union picketed outside the City and County Building before the meeting, and they applauded the council members who asked for more job guarantees.
Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore abstained from the vote because her brother-in-law’s company, Gilmore Construction, has a stake in Ferrovial’s bid.
Councilman Paul Lopez voted for the predevelopment agreement, but he stressed to airport and Ferrovial executives that preserving jobs is an important value of the city. Those who made DIA what it is today should get to reap the benefits for years to come, he said.
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