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It appears as if it will be months before the state picks a new vendor to operate the highly lucrative concessions operations at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Just weeks after suing the state to block the contract from being awarded to a new, politically connected company, the current operator of the airport’s concessions has reached a tentative agreement with state officials on a timetable for pausing the company’s lawsuit and the state’s consideration of a new contract.
In documents filed just before Christmas in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, the current concessions vendor, Fraport Baltimore Partnership, LLC, and the Maryland Aviation Administration agreed that the company’s lawsuit, filed earlier in December, should be stayed until at least Feb. 15. At the same time, the state agreed that it would not recommend a new vendor to operate the airport concessions until at least 60 days after that.
The timeline was outlined in a court filing made jointly by Fraport’s attorneys at the Washington, D.C., firm Husch Blackwell, LLC, and the state attorney general’s office.
While the case hadn’t been assigned to a judge by the end of last week, it seems highly likely that whomever is assigned the case will sign off on the timetable that Fraport and the aviation administration have agreed to, meaning it could be months before the contract is ultimately awarded.
Fraport is suing the state to prevent the aviation administration from awarding the new concessions contract to New Market Development Joint Venture LLC, a company that was formed in 2021 by Major Riddick, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Parris Glendening (D) and has been a longtime power player in Maryland politics.
In November, the MAA recommended that the 20-year contract go to New Market Development, pending approval by top officials at the Maryland Department of Transportation, the aviation administration’s parent agency. The contract would then be forwarded to the Board of Public Works, which would have the final say.
In its lawsuit, Fraport alleged that the bidding process was rigged, citing in its most recent court filing “significant procurement irregularities.” The situation sufficiently troubled state officials that the MAA issued a brief notice in early December, before learning about the company’s lawsuit, saying the bidding process was being put on hold indefinitely. State officials offered no explanation.
The contract, according to the request for proposal that the state issued in late spring to solicit bidders, was originally supposed to have been awarded by the end of 2022. The delay now guarantees that the process going forward will be driven by the administration of Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) and that the contract will be voted on by the new Board of Public Works, soon to consist of Moore, Comptroller-elect Brooke Lierman (D), and state Treasurer Dereck Davis (D), who is almost certain to be elected to full term by the General Assembly in the next few weeks.
At issue are two changes that Maryland Aviation Administration made to the RFP during the early days of the bidding process last summer that appear to have favored New Market Development.
The request for contract proposals specified that the company must have at least seven consecutive years in the airport concessions business over the past decade — which is considered a standard industry practice. As a relatively new entity, Riddick’s company would not qualify.
Yet within weeks, the MAA amended its RFP to say that a company’s experience in the airport concessions business no longer had to be a determining factor in awarding the contract. Instead, the state said that the executives of the bidding company merely had to have seven consecutive years in the field over the past decade, a provision that put Riddick’s business back in the running, because he had hired a few former Fraport executives to help run New Market Development.
But that wasn’t the only move that appeared to help New Market Development. In another amendment to the RFP, the aviation administration said bidders had to have all of their minority subcontractors lined up in advance, before finalizing their bids to the state. Often, on contracts of this scale, bidders commit to meeting certain minority hiring and contracting goals before identifying which contractors they would use on a project.
That provision wasn’t an issue for New Market Development because Riddick is Black, so the company already met the requirements; that change in the RFP may have also aided another bidder for the contract, according to people in the industry following the BWI contract process.
New Market Development is not Riddick’s first foray into the world of airport concessions. He has operated a separate fast food company called Great Foods LLC, which has fast food concessions at BWI Marshall Airport and at the airport in Pittsburgh, for about two decades. But managing the full-on concessions operations at an airport is something he has never done before.
Fraport or its corporate predecessors have held the BWI concessions contract for 18 years; the company currently also manages concessions at the airport in Cleveland and has pieces of the concession operations at JFK International Airport in New York and at Newark International Airport in New Jersey.
While MAA has been silent about the bidding process since the RFP was issued — and the bidders themselves are compelled to remain silent — several industry experts believe that only four or five companies are seeking the Maryland contract, which is estimated to be worth billions of dollars over the life of its 20 years.
Riddick’s gambit to win the concessions contract appears to have initially been designed to win favor from the previous Board of Public Works — outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan (R), outgoing Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), and Davis, the state treasurer. But it’s entirely conceivable that his lifetime of political contacts will put him in good standing with the incoming Board of Public Works as well.
Moore has yet to nominate a secretary of Transportation or a new director for the Maryland Aviation Administration. The Hogan administration’s MAA chief, Ricky Smith, co-hosted a fundraiser for Moore in the fall.