Bridge building, image-making go hand in hand

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2008 - 5:02 PM

In Himle Horner, MnDOT gets help restoring its image after the 35W bridge collapse.

The state is paying $550,000 for a public relations firm to tell the story of the new Interstate 35W bridge -- and to help restore the image of the beleaguered Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The firm, Himle Horner Inc., has been leading a "proactive, on-the-ground" initiative since last fall that includes information kiosks, attempts to shape media coverage and weekly "sidewalk superintendent tours" of the construction work.

A PR plan also promised to use a webcam to beam a half-hour live educational show from the bridge site to all Minnesota school-age children whose classrooms have Web access.

It's all part of a strategy that helped Flatiron Constructors, which hired Himle Horner as a subcontractor, win the $234 million bridge contract.

The communications strategy of Himle Horner, which has close ties to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, went beyond the particulars of building a new bridge with a promise to resurrect MnDOT's image.

One of six MnDOT panelists who chose the Flatiron team said Himle Horner had a "big-picture approach to PR that goes beyond construction of the project itself and into rebuilding faith in MnDOT."

Ever since the bridge's contract was awarded, critics -- including those who did not win the contract -- have complained that MnDOT has seemed overly concerned with PR.

Points awarded for public relations counted for 15 percent of the technical scoring that determined which company was chosen -- a percentage that was almost four times higher than MnDOT had used on most of the projects where a similar bidding process was in play.

"That was a big surprise to a lot of people," said Margaret Donahoe, the legislative director for the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group. She said the PR emphasis, especially for a project that many are eager to see completed, was noteworthy.

"Who's against building a new 35W bridge?" she said.

MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender said that the 35W bridge's fast-track construction meant "ample weight" needed to be given to public relations. As for why PR extended to restoring MnDOT's image, Kender responded: "A bridge had just fallen down, and I think that probably put the trust factor into play."

Kender said Flatiron would have still won the bid without the PR score, and said the agency's approach was endorsed by federal transportation officials.

But in December, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general noted that the new 35W bridge project "emphasized public relations and aesthetics more heavily" than similar MnDOT projects. That emphasis, he said, was one of four factors that "influenced the selection of the winning bid."

Tapping the taxpayers

Charles McCrossan, the president of C.S. McCrossan Inc., one of the unsuccessful bidders, said taxpayers are now paying for a string of Himle Horner-inspired events that focus media attention on the bridge's predictable progress. "Gosh, they poured 100 yards of concrete, isn't that something?" he said. "It's no more tricky than having breakfast."

In an interview, company owner John Himle said the criticism of the public relations component is nothing more than sour grapes on the part of losing bidders who were outdone by Flatiron because they perhaps "got lazy."

Himle Horner, he added, "frankly, [has] more experience than anybody else in this market." But he said his company, being widely known in political circles, did not influence the Flatiron selection.

Himle Horner is being paid $550,000 for its work and, under the contract with Flatiron, MnDOT can award up to another $100,000 to the team if it goes "above and beyond" its public relations goals.

Himle Horner's role on the bridge, according to interviews, was made possible by Linda Figg, the president of Figg Bridge, the Florida-based architect partnering with Flatiron on the project. Figg said her decision to telephone Himle Horner was "a complete 'cold call'" after she got the name from a trade association in Washington, D.C.

In hiring Himle Horner, however, the Figg-Flatiron team was getting more than PR.

Strong GOP ties

A former Republican assistant majority leader in the Legislature, Himle is a campaign contributor to Pawlenty who said he and others on his staff know the state's top leaders from both major political parties.

Himle was appointed by then-Republican Gov. Arne Carlson to the Metropolitan Airports Commission, and a senior account executive at the company formerly worked for Pawlenty's office and produced the governor's weekly radio show.

Himle Horner has provided public relations for Minnesota's first commuter rail line and was paid $883,000 by a business coalition led by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to help pass a constitutional amendment in 2006 related to transportation spending.

Kevin Gutknecht, a MnDOT spokesman, described the company's relationship to Pawlenty in a December e-mail to another agency official: "Gov's office periodically works through Himle Horner to push on something."

What Himle Horner did to impress the MnDOT selection panel -- and how its competitors fell short -- can be seen in agency documents. Some members thought Himle Horner's competitors were being too traditional. "Work has been tactical," Tom O'Keefe, one of the scorer's, wrote about the approach to public relations by C.S. McCrossan, one of the bidders. "This project is more strategic[,] i.e. trust."

From the beginning, Himle Horner moved quickly. An hour after MnDOT announced in September that Figg-Flatiron was its preliminary choice to build the bridge, Himle Horner managing director Todd Rapp e-mailed Bob McFarlin, now MnDOT's acting commissioner, wanting to talk. "I am in the parking lot," he said. Six days later, Rapp told MnDOT that he had "pretty strong orders" to make Figg-Flatiron "visible in the press and Legislature."

At one point, according to an e-mail from Rapp to MnDOT, the governor's office called him to ask whether a webcam giving viewers a look at construction progress was functioning.

Gutknecht, while welcoming Himle Horner's help, issued a reminder to agency officials two weeks after the Figg-Flatiron team was officially awarded the contract in October. "Though we have Himle Horner on contract for a whole bunch of money," he explained, "we have to make sure that everyone understands this is a MnDOT project."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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