By Eugenia Orr
The University of Chicago celebrates the existing infrastructure and rich cultural assets of its adjacent communities and is committed to enriching the cultural interactions with its surrounding neighborhoods. The development of the Green Line Performing Arts Center, the newest addition to the Arts Block, signals the continued support for community-based programs and arts as an economic catalyst for the Washington Park neighborhood. As the largest anchor institution on the city’s South Side, the University demonstrates its commitment to collectively operate as platforms and venues for black artists and cultural entrepreneurs living in Chicago. It was only natural that the University sought out a construction partner that embodies this promise of access to opportunity, the minority-owned Powers & Sons Construction Company.
“The University is deeply committed to ensuring diversity on our construction sites, which includes minorities, women, and local residents, from the general contractor to the men and women building the walls,” said Derek Douglas, UChicago’s vice president for civic engagement and external affairs. “Powers & Sons is equally dedicated to this goal.”
Mamon Powers Sr. founded Powers & Sons in 1967, after moving north during the 1960s Great Migration of African-Americans in search of economic opportunities. Powers initially sought work at the steel mill in Gary, Ind., but the racial barriers at the time did not allow African-Americans to join the union. Seeing the boom of construction going on in the city, the need for workers, and a passion for making Gary a prosperous community, he decided the construction skills he learned from his homebuilder father in Mississippi would afford him greater opportunity and the chance to employ others. After apprenticing under African-American home builder Andrew Means, known for building more than 1,000 homes in Gary, Powers established his company with just three employees and became one of the first African-American union members in Gary.
Powers & Sons started as a homebuilding firm and, by the 1970s, expanded to include industrial, institutional, and commercial construction. In 1980, the company received certification as a federally recognized 8(a) company, qualifying it for the set-aside contracts designed to help level the playing field in federal contracting. Powers and Sons received nearly $14 million in federal contracts during its seven-year term, allowing it to double its number of full-time employees and increase revenues by more than 400 percent increase.
Claude Powers, president of the company said, “There has been slow and steady progress over the years. The phrase, ‘we are not where we should be but not where we were’ comes to mind. The industry has made some inroads, in the Chicago area in particular. The private sector has not moved as fast as Chicago, in regards to progress, so I would love to see some change there. Powers & Sons is breaking barriers by taking advantage of the opportunities given to us and setting course records when the opportunity is provided. This allows us to focus on our abilities rather than the predisposed assumptions of the past.”
Today, Powers & Sons has offices in Chicago, Gary, and Indianapolis, Ind. It is led by sons Mamon Jr., CEO and chairman of the board; and Claude Powers, chief operating officer and president of the Chicago and Northwest Indiana offices; and grandson Mamon Powers, III, executive vice president and president of the Indianapolis office. It is one of the country’s top 100 construction firms, with a reputation for meeting specific client needs.
With the Green Line Performing Arts Center, for example, it was essential to preserve as much of the building’s original architecture and history–something that Powers & Sons took extreme care of during demolition and construction. “We didn’t waste anything in this building,” explained Jeffrey Hall, senior project manager and superintendent for the Green Line project. “There are three storefronts tied together, all with a limestone foundation. To display the history of the space, a portion of the roof was kept and reinforced with structural steel for safety.”
The Green Line Performing Arts Center, located in the heart of the Arts Block, houses a 70+-seat black box theatre, rehearsal space, and mezzanine. As a community destination, the University was committed to preserving the architecture along this stretch of historic East Garfield Boulevard as much as safely possible, especially with community residents often stopping by to see the progress. “It is rewarding and truly a pleasure working on an important community endeavor like this,” said Hall. “There has been so much positive feedback.”
It is this type of dedication that makes Powers & Sons an effective partner, explained Phil Gold, acting head of UChicago’s Commercial Real Estate Operations. Powers & Sons has worked on various University projects and was instrumental in the Harper Court mixed-use development at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue. “Powers & Sons and the University have developed a strong and equitable relationship,” said Gold. “Not only has Powers & Sons been a great community partner, but they are great partners in keeping projects on time and especially on budget – a significant consideration for private institutions.”
In addition to other University projects, the Lake Meadows shopping complex, and the new Jewel-Osco development on 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, Powers & Sons is also part the construction team for the new Obama Presidential Center (OPC). The Presidential Partners (TPP) consortium of Power & Sons, UJAMAA Construction, Brown & Momen, and Safeway Construction, with Turner Construction Company, make up the Lakeside Alliance, a joint venture selected by the Obama Foundation to serve as the construction manager for the OPC.