WE WONDER where all the jobs went. Then you get a guy who's doing just what we need around here -- running a growing local business, built from sweat and smarts. And what happens? He gets the door slammed in his face. By people who should be throwing business his way.
Dan Higgins is president of EMCOM Industries. It's a fancy name for a half-dozen guys -- Higgins included -- who grind and weld metal parts in an old brick building near downtown.
The NFTA wants to put bike racks on its buses. Higgins bid for the job -- $171,000. It was $50,000 less than the next-lowest bidder, a company in the state of Washington.
The NFTA gave the Washington company the job.
Higgins is still in shock.
Given that the NFTA gets a cut every time somebody buys a house around here, a funding source no home buyer is fond of, you'd think it would be a lean, mean, penny-stretching machine. Especially when it can save 50 grand and stay local at the same time.
What makes the whole thing smell is that some of the NFTA's specs for the job came, word for word, from the Washington company's proposal. It makes it look like the NFTA decided ahead of time it wanted the Washington company, maybe because it specializes in bike racks, and wrote the bid to fit it. Even though the racks would cost the NFTA an extra $50,000.
And we wonder why our economy is in the dumpster.
EMCOM is the kind of small-but-growing business that could get Buffalo off its knees.
Higgins is 39, a divorced father of three. He and co-owner, Bruce Pagels, look like they'd be more comfortable riding Harleys than balancing books. Higgins' hair hangs to mid-back, tied in a ponytail. Pagels is a wiry guy with tattoos decorating both arms. Their sartorial preferences run from black jeans to black T-shirts. But they're as pleasant as grandmothers, they've got hands like leather and there's dirt under everybody's fingernails.
They built the business from a two-man show, and they want to keep going. Pagels is still ticked off the city didn't put out bids for the new cages when it built the animal shelter on Oak Street a couple of years ago.
"They ended up paying $60,000," said Pagels, shaking his head. "We could've made 'em for 40."
Higgins and Pagels sank 20 grand into the old brick building on Sycamore Street -- new roof, new wiring -- and turned it into a factory. If they hadn't come along, it'd probably be a pile of bricks by now. They put another 100 grand into machines and parts. Everybody else is leaving Buffalo; they're dying to stay.
"We like it here," said Higgins. "Taxes are lower than in the suburbs, and we're close to our customers."
The bike rack job is small potatoes to the NFTA, which bid out work on a $60 million airport. But it's a big deal to Higgins. He gets this job, he can buy the building he's looking at on Genesee Street and hire more people.
Granted, the Washington company has made bus bike racks for years. But we're not building a rocket ship here. EMCOM makes sewer covers for the city, it computer-grinds precision parts for forensic microscopes. Asked if they could make bike racks, Higgins and Pagels burst out laughing. It was like asking a carpenter if he could make a cradle.
"And if anything breaks," said Higgins, "we'll fix it right here."
NFTA head Larry Meckler said EMCOM got bounced because it didn't come up with specs for a bike rack or a prototype. Higgins told the NFTA he'd build the same kind of rack as the Washington company but couldn't spare a man for a month to make a prototype. Besides, the NFTA knows what EMCOM can do -- it just made the NFTA $100,000 worth of hand rails for Metro stations.
Meckler took over the NFTA last year and is a decent guy. He's the one who wants to put bike racks on buses, an idea long overdue. He says the NFTA used the Washington company's specs to give bidders "an idea" of what it was looking for, not to give it the inside track.
"We don't give any preference," said Meckler. "But it's always great when local companies get the work."
It sure is.
There might be a happy ending.
The NFTA, after hearing from Higgins' lawyer, said it will re-bid the project. Higgins will be there again, at $171,000. He expects to beat the Washington guys, again. Just to be sure, he'll spend the $4,000 to build a prototype.
Maybe this time, it will be good enough.
Problem is, if Higgins hadn't raised a fuss, the NFTA would've given a nice boost to the Washington economy.
And we wonder where the jobs go.