|By Mark Schlueb, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 21, 2009--The newest addition of the Orange County Convention Center has been open for six years, but the aftermath of its haphazard construction lives on in federal court.
A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Tampa recently issued a $6.3 million judgment -- and a stinging rebuke -- against the building's general contractor, Hunt/Clark/Construct Two. Interest, attorneys' fees and other costs, which have not yet been decided by the court, will likely add several million dollars to the judgment.
In a 163-page order in a case that has dragged on since 2003, Judge Michael Williamson said the joint venture hired by Orange County to oversee the center's construction was responsible for "an inefficient mess" and "an uncoordinated nightmare" that was completed "in the most unproductive way possible."
"Somehow, in what appears to this court to be a state of chaos, a convention center was built," Williamson wrote.
The company was a joint venture of Hunt Construction Group and The Clark Construction Group -- both national companies -- and Construct Two Construction Managers of Orlando. Hunt and Clark are among the largest construction companies in the country, and Hunt is now managing construction of Orlando's Amway Center basketball arena.
Williamson found that the partnership suffered from "distrust and finger-pointing" that led to widespread management failures on the $748 million convention-center expansion.
Attorneys for Hunt/Clark/Construct Two did not return calls seeking comment.
The million-square-foot convention-center addition was green-lighted by Orange County in 1998, in hopes of capitalizing on a then-booming convention market. To get the building up quickly, construction began before final blueprints were complete, according to subcontractors who worked on it.
"They wanted to get it built quickly so it would start making money. The job wasn't ready to be built, and they knew it," said Richard Coble, a construction consultant hired by Electric Machinery Enterprises Inc., the company that won the judgment against Hunt/Clark/Construct Two.
Because the plans were incomplete, numerous changes were needed. And the contractor failed to keep a schedule that would allow work to progress in a logical manner, the judge found. For instance, he said, drywall was installed before there was a roof on the building -- and had to be replaced after it was damaged by rain.
The project schedule maintained by the company was a bogus one used for "public relations purposes" to show Orange County everything was OK on the job, Williamson wrote.
Costs skyrocketed because of constant revisions to the plans and the lack of a coordinated schedule, but the project was kept within its budget because many subcontractors were never paid for the extra work they had to perform. EME also sued Orange County, but the county settled for $820,000 in 2004.
The project stayed within budget, but subcontractors claimed that was simply because they weren't paid what they were owed.
"The job was terribly mismanaged by H/C/C," said Chris McRae, whose Tallahassee law firm represented EME. "All the trade contractors like EME were left holding the bag."
In fact, EME -- like other smaller companies that worked on the project -- was driven out of business. At least five companies in addition to EME filed suit over the project, but only one is still pending: Patterson Mechanical, a Winter Garden company, has sued Harper Mechanical, the company that hired it to install air-conditioning ducts.
Peggy Patterson blames the convention-center project for killing her once-thriving business.
"I lost everything. I have no home, no business, no employees," said Patterson, who now lives with her mother. "And it's because of that building."
Mark Schlueb can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5417.
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