Discrimination Lawsuit Raises Question In Bridgeport

Jul 25, 2012

Steelpointe Harbor has been promised to residents of Bridgeport for more than thirty years. This empty 50-acre piece of land is expected to be built out into a complex of hotels, retail, high-rise apartments and offices. With the announcement that the outdoor goods megastore Bass Pro Shops would be moving in as early as next year, that promise could finally become a reality. But in a city where 38 percent of residents are Hispanic and 34 percent are black, allegations that Bass Pro Shops deliberately shut minority job applicants out is hitting hard.

“This is a minority neighborhood," says Mike Martinez, who has lived in Bridgeport's East Side neighborhood for forty years. "So if they discriminate, you’re putting it in the wrong spot, because this is all minority.”

The East Side is walking distance from the 50-acre Steelpointe development, separated only by the I-95 overpass. But despite the promise of construction and new business right next door, no one’s sure if it will benefit them. Kevin Lee, a lifelong Bridgeport resident, says a lot of East Side residents don’t think they’re getting the jobs they deserve.

“A lot of people would like the jobs around here. 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.”

Lee works as a cook in Milford. But a job in Bridgeport would be even better, he says – maybe something in one of those restaurants that’s supposed to open once Steelpointe is built out.

The lawsuit was filed by the federal Economic Employment Opportunities Commission, and it alleges that Bass Pro Shops systematically discriminates against black and Hispanic job applicants. The EEOC also accuses the Missouri-based company of retaliating against workers who protested its hiring practices. 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," says Bridgeport's Mayor Bill Finch. "We have pretty strong equal opportunity laws in Connecticut, so I don’t anticipate any problems.”

City officials say they did know about the lawsuit before closing the deal with Bass Pro Shops, but they aren’t concerned.

"Bridgeport has a great track record of including minority contractors in all of our construction work and minority businesses in city purchasing," Finch says, and he expects that to happen this time around as Steelpointe’s Miami-based developer continues work. But there are no set plans for that yet. Adrienne Houel heads up The Green Team, a Bridgeport-based non-profit that creates green businesses and recruits local low-income residents to work for them.

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

Houel said she’s worked with the city and developers in past Steelpointe iterations to make sure that Bridgeport residents are a priority when it comes to recruiting workers. She hopes those will come to fruition. Still, she didn’t expect the city to bring in a company with a lawsuit like this one, especially with Bridgeport’s high unemployment rate and high minority population.

“My first reaction was surprise that they got that far in the negotiations in the city of Bridgeport, which is a minority-majority city," Houel says. "That’s not a good start.”

But for a piece of prime waterfront property that’s been called ripe for development since 1983, the news that Bass Pro Shops will be moving in – no matter what its other problems – is still seen as very good news.

For more on this story, visit the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.