Atlanta airport restaurant spaces remain empty amid contract delays

At Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, contracting for new restaurants and shops has been delayed since last year amid political turmoil at Atlanta City Hall.

With contracting in a holding pattern, the future of more than 100 of those businesses at the world’s busiest airport is unclear.

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For passengers, it means a longer wait for new restaurant locations and fewer options for food and drink in some parts of the airport.

For Hartsfield-Jackson, it could mean missed opportunities to grow revenue by offering more choices and updated restaurants and shops.

And for companies seeking to do business with the airport, it means more uncertainty after going through a months-long and costly process to compete for contracts.

Some locations remain empty. A Concourse C food court has been vacant for years awaiting the city’s contracting process, while lines grow longer at the existing restaurants and eateries on the concourse. Two locations on Concourse B also are yet to be filled.

With other contracts to refresh the airport’s restaurants on hold, existing businesses are getting their contracts extended without going through the competitive bidding process.

And a massive round of contracting for more than 80 new airport shops is also on hold.

“There’s always concern that I hear about some of our concourses… where we have a lot of vacant spaces,” said Felicia Moore, the Atlanta city council president, during a visit to the airport in March.

“We’ve had conversations with the mayor’s office about when we plan on actually releasing those [contracts],” said Roosevelt Council, Hartsfield-Jackson’s general manager. “We’re still in a decision matrix for that.”

As new deals await movement, some of the contracts that have been extended for incumbent restaurateurs on Concourse E are held by people who were major campaign contributors to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

“We’ve had issues with our continued extending, extending, extending,” Moore said. “This limbo is not a good thing.”

The concessions contracts at Hartsfield-Jackson came under increased scrutiny last year in the lead-up to the mayoral elections. Reed’s administration indicated it wanted to rush contracts for new airport shops through approval before the end of the year and before his term ended, while most candidates for mayor called for a moratorium.

Many of the mayoral candidates said the next council and new mayor should approve the seven-year contracts that can be renewed to last a total of 10 years. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as a candidate supported the position of Reed, who endorsed her.

Bribery probe clouds process

Some have called for the contracts to be rebid, amid the federal bribery investigation that has already put the city’s chief procurement officer Adam Smith in prison and left Atlanta’s contracting process under a cloud of corruption.

And, the winner selected for some of the contracts for the Concourse E shops and restaurants, Hojeij Branded Foods, is linked to a company run by the wife of a Hartsfield-Jackson executive fired in March after revelations about the possible conflict of interest.

City council transportation committee chair Andre Dickens said the city needs to consider, “Do we need to rebid all those contracts?”

“We know all eyes are on the airport, all eyes are on procurement,” Dickens said. “I imagine that the conversations being had right now are surrounding, ‘Well, when and where was Adam [Smith] in the process of any of these? It would by my expectation that if Adam Smith was involved in the process of any [request for proposal] making or decision, then they need to be rebid.”

It’s costly for companies to put teams together and prepare proposals hundreds of pages long to compete for airport contracts.

“All these businesses spent all this money to produce all these packages…. I’ve been in business before and I’d hate to have that much uncertainty about my revenue models, insurance, just even your cost structure,” Dickens said.

But, he said, maybe some companies that didn’t have an opportunity before will have another chance to win.

“Perhaps putting all this stuff back out will give us an opportunity to get it right,” Dickens said.

Last summer, questions were raised about the Reed administration rushing through approvals even though the current contracts don’t expire until September 2018. That date is fast approaching, with no contracts finalized.

Council, the Atlanta airport manager, has already said that some of the airport concessions contracts must be rebid, including four of the contract packages for new retail shops and a contract for the Concourse C food court.

Yet the contracting process for those locations has yet to begin, six months after Council said they would need to be rebid.

Other major airport projects have also been delayed, including a plan to build an InterContinental Hotel next to the domestic terminal. The winner for the project, developer Majestic Carter, was selected in 2015, and Reed said in early 2016 the hotel would be completed in 24 months to 30 months. But the project has still not broken ground.

Airport officials say developer Majestic Carter is “tentatively scheduled to start construction at the end of 2018 or the first part of 2019.”

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