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A Chicago-based aviation consultant paid $250,000 by the City of Denver to help plan the future of Stapleton International Airport produced no tangible work other than a twenty-page report on the airport's main terminal.
The city says that the Unison Consulting Group Inc. performed a variety of "management consulting" services over an eleven-month period, and that the 6,000-word report the company wrote last year accounts for only about a third of its work at Stapleton. If so, that would mean the report cost Denver taxpayers close to $83,000--or $14 a word.
And the report contains little new information. Indeed, portions of it appear to have been lifted practically verbatim from a previous--and much cheaper--study commissioned several years ago.
"It seems questionable to have spent [this money] to duplicate work that had already been done," says Denver city councilwoman Mary DeGroot. "The question is, why did we duplicate it? As we're now watching every penny that we can on the Denver International Airport project, an expenditure of questionable dollars is of concern."
Unison president Anthony Q. Drake says such criticism is "totally inappropriate." Unison, he notes, was hired primarily to help the city organize the complex Stapleton planning effort--a job that did not by nature require the production of reports, studies or other hard documents. Unison, Drake says, performed its job "to the utmost."
"An unfair story is being painted," Drake says. "If you talk around in the industry about our firm you'll find that we have an excellent reputation."
Stapleton, a massive 4,700-acre expanse in east Denver, is scheduled to shut down whenever DIA opens. Figuring out how to turn its soon-to-be-defunct terminal, concourses, hangars and vast amounts of developable land into an economic asset has been a concern of city officials for more than a decade.
Planning for the site has dragged on for years. The overseeing of Stapleton's redevelopment now falls to two entities: Stapleton 2000, an arm of city government, and the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation, a private nonprofit group.
Unison first was hired by Stapleton 2000 in mid-1992. The firm sold itself to the city as a minority-owned concern with "extensive experience in the areas of project management, facility planning and systems development, primarily for complex, facility-dependent public agencies," according to a company resume on file at the city auditor's office.
Drake and Unison vice president Judith Byrd are political supporters of Denver mayor Wellington Webb. Each contributed $500 to Webb's re-election campaign in the summer of 1992, right around the time Unison's contract was first awarded, city records show. And the firm itself has been even more generous: Last September, it wrote a check to Webb for $2,000.
Webb spokesman Anthony Tansimore says the mayor's office has no comment on Unison. But Errol Stevens, director of the Stapleton 2000 office, says he first decided to hire the company because of its "long and lengthy credentials. I thought they would be excellent people" to do the job, he says.
Unison was awarded the contract despite reservations voiced by the office of Denver auditor Bob Crider.
"Why can't a company located within Colorado perform this service?" Beth Machann, a member of Crider's staff, wrote in a letter to Stevens in June 1992. "What service is this company performing that city employees can't perform?"
Stevens, in a written reply on file at the auditor's office, answered that hiring consultants like Unison to help with Stapleton planning was more "cost-effective" than building a permanent staff. Because of its experience and because it was minority-owned, Unison was an excellent choice, Stevens said.
"We are not aware of other Colorado-based firms with the unique qualifications of Unison," Stevens wrote.
One of Unison's tasks was to write a report called a "Facilities Management Program." The document was supposed to provide the city with an inventory of buildings and infrastructure at Stapleton, offer a plan for managing the facilities, and make recommendations about how to put the plan into place.
But Unison never even got through the first stage. DIA aviation director Jim DeLong told Unison to stop working on the study after he was appointed in March 1993. Shortly after, he reassigned the firm to do consulting work at DIA.
"It was his belief that we could undertake that...with our own resources...in a more cost-effective way," Stevens says now. He says DeLong "had no question about [Unison's] competence at all--not at all. It was a budgetary and organizational decision" to cut short the project.
DeLong says he decided to take Unison off the Stapleton project because he wanted to shift responsibility for airport planning to the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation, which is now conducting its own $1.5 million study of the airport, due to be completed this summer.
In the end, the only tangible work Unison presented to the city on Stapleton was a draft of a report dated February 16, 1993.
Seven of the report's twenty pages are charts or maps of the airport that record information already well known to Denver's airport planners. One, for instance, is a "Site Plan" that shows where the terminal and surrounding buildings are. Another, labeled "Aircraft Paving Areas," is a map of the airport with runways and aprons colored gray.