Economics

Bruce Ratner-Financed Community Group Goes Out of Business Two Months After His Arena Opens

The Barclays Center, which opened in Brooklyn in September. Credit: Flickr user Blue387

Less than two months after the Barclays Center opened in Brooklyn, one of the most significant groups created to support Atlantic Yards will close this week.

BUILD was one of the most visible of eight groups that signed a Community Benefits Agreement with Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner in 2005. The CBA laid the groundwork for the city and state’s public support of the project, which at latest count totaled about $305 million or a little less than 8 percent than the project’s total $4.9 billon price tag, according to Norman Oder at the Atlantic Yards Report.

The mission of BUILD, or Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development, was to oversee workforce development and train apprentices to work at the 22-acre megaproject, which includes Barclays Center, a new arena to host the Brooklyn Nets, as well as 16 towers of residential and commercial development on which work hasn’t yet begun.

BUILD last week posted a sign noting its decision to close its offices this Friday, according Norman Oder at the Atlantic Yards Report. Since then, BUILD’s website has announced that the organization had “honored its mission and purpose to foster economic self-sufficiency and prosperity amongst socio-economically vulnerable communities.

“The Barclays Center has been built,” said Daisy A. James, BUILD’s employer services coordinator, over the phone. “Workforce development, that piece of the CBA has been fulfilled and, you know, the organization’s had almost a decade-long run.”

James said the decision to shut down, which came at the end of October, was mutual between BUILD and its funder, Atlantic Yards developer and Forest City Ratner CEO, Bruce Ratner. She admitted the idea had been foreseen — just not so soon — as BUILD was in the process of creating an online job bank.

“So when we heard that we would be closing, it was a little surprising,” James said. “And then, at the same time, with the Barclays Center being built, as for creating jobs, we understand some of the motivation behind that.”

BUILD officials said they helped place 175 people at the Barclays Center, as well as 600 at other locations, since 2007.

James said BUILD was working with Forest City Ratner to prepare a celebration of their work. In the meantime, all applicants are being referred to other local workforce development services, like Workforce1.

As other CBA signatories have disbanded or been less active, BUILD’s closure will likely leave an institutional void in providing the promised benefits, even as Brooklyn’s unemployment rate remains higher than the city as a whole, particularly in the low-income minority communities it focused on.

When the Barclay’s Center opened in September, Forest City spokesman Joe DePlasco told the New York Times that an average of 841 construction workers had been onsite each day, as compared to nearly 17,000 construction jobs estimated when the project was being sold to Brooklyn. Of the arena, an estimated 105 of around 2,000 jobs were full time.

BUILD arose in early 2004 to both provide jobs as well as grease community support for the evolving project. Through some of the most contentious years of the project’s development, representatives from BUILD could be seen at hearings in support of the project.

In recent years, it was headed by James Caldwell, a 61-year-old veteran and president of the local Precinct Community Council, a liaison between the NYPD and residents of the Prospect Heights and Crown Heights neighborhoods.

But its run was marked with controversy from day one. Though they denied it at the time, the group had received free rent and much of its budget from Forest City Ratner. In 2004, then-president Darnell Canada resigned, alleging that some in the group were focused more on “financial self gain” than on helping the community.

In November 2011, BUILD was named in a lawsuit by seven apprentices who alleged a bait-and-switch, and claimed they worked for free for two months in exchange for union cards that never appeared. Gary Stone, an attorney with South Brooklyn Legal Services, didn’t know what the closure would mean, but still expected a summary judgment by early next year.

(Caldwell has asserted that BUILD guaranteed interviews, but jobs were never promised to anyone in the program.)

Then in September, a complaint from a recently fired executive to the State Attorney General emerged on the Atlantic Yards Report. Former C.F.O. Lance Woodward said that BUILD owed $115,000 in taxes, and that Caldwell himself misallocated nearly $121,000 over an 18-month period on unapproved expenses like food, transportation costs and Nets season tickets.

James said she wasn’t aware of any movement on the complaint. At the same time, Forest City Ratner had audited BUILD in order to indemnify both organizations.

“It wasn’t due to any fiduciary misrepresentation,” James said of the closure. “I mean, Forest City audited us, the audit came through successfully, so we wanted to be clear about that too. We wanted people to know it had nothing to do with finances in terms of Mr. Caldwell misappropriating funds.”

There was little sign of BUILD’s closure in mid-October, when Caldwell sat for an interview about the group’s work and the impact of underserved residents in Brooklyn. The storefront office was a hive of activity, with some of the estimated 150 applicants who walk in on an average month.

“In terms of BUILD going forward, we want to constantly tell our story,” Caldwell said in his Downtown Brooklyn office filled with plaques, awards and the polished shovel from the 2010 groundbreaking of the Barclays Center. “I can get more funding, even from the federal government, from our president.”

He was proud of helping Brooklynites who came into the office, and in fact compared the offices, paid for by Ratner, to a community space or “one-stop shop” for needs outside of jobs. Still, he could see the issues emerging from spending money outside its budget and outside of the organization’s purview.

Caldwell said they might buy subway fare, food or clothes for job interviewees. In other cases, he said they brought neighborhood children to a Pennsylvania amusement park or to see the Nets play in the team’s old home of New Jersey. In other cases, Caldwell would write landlords checks for tenants who otherwise wouldn’t be able to pay rent. Through Ratner, BUILD helped cover rent for a Brooklyn man that was injured in an arson fire that killed his wife and two sons.

“I tend to get the business in trouble — a non-profit organization in trouble — by making decisions like that,” Caldwell said. “But, you know, is it wrong? Yeah, maybe its wrong, according to the budget, or whatever. But is it right for the people? Yeah.”

Still, he denied accusations of misallocating money.

“By buying people MetroCards because they’re in our training program and they have no way to get there? I don’t think so,” he said. “I helped somebody pay the rent or they’ll get put out? I don’t think so. But I say, I can see people bringing allegations against me if I had a big mansion, a pocket full of money, this and that.”

Still, two weeks before the decision to shutter BUILD, Caldwell hinted he was tired of the criticism from those calling him a “sellout” and a “puppet for the developer.”

“A lot of times, people say, ‘Well Mr. Caldwell If you quit, that says you’re guilty,‘” he said. “No, I don’t think so, you know, because nobody knows what one has done. But in terms of allegations of allegations, our books will speak for themselves.”

The groundbreaking for the second building of the Atlantic Yards project is scheduled for December 18.

Dan Rosenblum is a New York-area writer. He graduated from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and has contributed to City Limits, Capital New York, Jersey Journal and other publications. Only half of those who follow him on Twitter are Spam bots.

Tags: economic developmentbrooklynatlantic yardsforest city ratnerbarclays centeratlantic yards reportnorman odercommunity benefit agreementsjames caldwell