Lawsuit against Bass Pro Shops charging employment bias raises questions in Bridgeport

The recent announcement that Bridgeport’s Steelpointe development — 30 years in the making — will finally get an anchor tenant has brought hope to a city that some say is on the brink of revitalization.

But not everyone is convinced that Steelpointe will create meaningful opportunities for the residents of Bridgeport. The city had an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent in June, compared with 8.4 percent for the state as a whole, according to the state’s Department of Labor.

That skepticism has been fueled by a lawsuit filed last week against Bass Pro Shops, Steelpointe’s first tenant. The suit, by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), accuses the Missouri-based outdoor goods megastore of taking deliberate steps to avoid hiring minority applicants.

“My first reaction was surprise that they got that far in the negotiations in the city of Bridgeport, which is a minority-majority city,” said Adrienne Houel, who heads The Green Team, a nonprofit organization in Bridgeport. “That’s not a good start.”

The Green Team creates environmentally friendly businesses and recruits low-income residents to work for them.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 38 percent of Bridgeport residents are Hispanic and 35 percent are black.

City officials have said they were aware of the lawsuit, originally filed last September and amended last week, before announcing that Bass Pro Shops would open a store there as early as next year. The company has denied any wrongdoing.

“You know, in America, anybody can bring a complaint against anybody. We’ll have to see how it plays out in court,” said Bridgeport’s mayor, Bill Finch, speaking Monday on WNPR’s “Where We Live.”

“We have pretty strong equal opportunity laws in Connecticut, so I don’t anticipate any problems,” Finch said.

Skepticism about the parcel

The Steelpointe development is adjacent to two Bridgeport neighborhoods: the East Side, where 67 percent of residents were Hispanic as of 2000, and the East End, where 65 percent of residents were black. In 2000, manufacturing accounted for 40 percent of jobs in the East End, with an average annual salary of $47,000, according to the city. In the East Side, the major employment sectors were health care and education, and the average salary was $37,000.

Residents and business owners on the East Side — separated from Steelpointe by only the I-95 overpass — are already disillusioned about the property.

“We had casinos coming, that never happened; we had the hotels, that never happened,” said Mike Martinez, a retired Department of Correction officer who has lived in the East Side for 40 years. “I’ve seen a lot of shovels there, but nothing being done.”

Kevin Lee, a lifelong Bridgeport resident, said the disillusionment is coupled with a feeling of being excluded. Despite talk of new construction projects all over the city, he said, many in the East Side still don’t feel as if they’re benefiting.

“A lot of people would like the jobs around here,” said Lee, who works as a cook in Milford but would like to find a job closer to home. “To not have a job and have other people come into Bridgeport and take the jobs that are in Bridgeport, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Houel said she has worked with the city and Steelpointe developers in the past to create a “jobs funnel” for the project, which would focus recruiting efforts on Bridgeport residents before looking elsewhere. And the city does have programs for minority-owned contractors and companies. But nothing has been promised yet for Steelpointe specifically.

“We know — and I defy anyone to contest me on this point — that minority firms will hire minority workers. We do not know that majority-white firms will hire a significant number of minority workers,” Houel said.

In 2007, 24 percent of Bridgeport businesses were owned by African Americans and 14 percent by Hispanics, according to the U.S. Census, compared with just 4 percent for both groups in Connecticut as a whole.

The lawsuit

According to the lawsuit, Bass Pro Shops employees “have engaged in, and continue to engage in, unlawful discrimination” against African-American and Hispanic applicants.

Examining company reports from 2007, the EEOC found that of the nearly 6,000 sales employees in Bass Pro’s 43 retail shops, only 4.2 percent were black. The lawsuit then compares the percentage of black sales employees and managers in each store to the overall percentage of black sales employees and managers in the locality.

In some cases, the differences are small but are deemed significant by the EEOC. For instance, none of 83 sales employees in a store in Branson, Mo., were black, according to company records, but the representation of black sales employees in the entire county was only 0.1 percent.

The EEOC also accuses top management of punishing any workers who protested the company’s alleged discriminatory hiring practices and destroying relevant records. It points to the company founder Johnny Morris, who allegedly answered a question about racial quotas in a meeting in 2004 or 2005 by saying, “That’s not the kind of people I want working in my stores.”

History of problems

The 50-acre piece of waterfront property has been plagued with corruption and economic woes since development was first envisioned in 1983. Bridgeport officials insist, however, that Bass Pro Shops will move into Steelpointe as scheduled, before the end of 2013, and that city residents will have jobs.

“There will be jobs for people in the neighborhood, and not just jobs, but jobs that are within walking distance of home, which is an incredible asset,” said David Kooris, the city’s new director of economic development.

The new location for Bass Pro Shops — in such a minority-dominated area — could also mean a renewed scrutiny that would make it very difficult to discriminate when hiring.

“This is a minority neighborhood,” Martinez said. “If they discriminate, they’re putting it in the wrong spot.”

Still, the question of who will benefit from Steelpointe once it is built out is on the minds of many. The current Miami-based developer Bob Christophe plans a complex of high-rise apartments, office buildings, retail and recreation.

Social service providers and other advocates have crowded public hearings about the project over the years, asking that affordable housing unit be a part of the development.

Houel remembers a deal that previous developers struck with the city several years ago, promising to build 100 affordable units on Steelpointe and 200 elsewhere.

Christoph’s plan calls for 150 affordable units, none of which would be on Steelpointe.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between the Mirror and WNPR. For a radio version of the story, click here.