Millions unpaid to builders of Chaffee Zoo expansion

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) —

They did the work to make the Chaffee Zoo’s African Adventure a money maker, but a year after its opening, subcontractors are still owed millions of dollars.

“It’s like, who the hell do they think they are?” one subcontractor told Action News.

The project cost more than $55 million in taxpayer money, funded by Measure Z. Frolicking giraffes and running rhinos became a big draw to the Chaffee Zoo when they moved into the African Adventure. The 13-acre zoo expansion finished right on time last October. And since its opening, the exhibits have been a big success.

“The attendance since African Adventure opened has been double, for the most part, what we were looking at a year ago at this time,” Chaffee Zoo marketing director Alisha Anderson told us in May.

The success hasn’t trickled down to the builders, though. Harris Construction won a regional engineering award for the project, but once it was done, invoices from its subcontractors starting going unpaid.

“Nothing has happened since then,” a subcontractor told us. “There’s been no response from the contractor, from Harris, until recently.”

The recent response came in the form of a letter saying Harris and its subcontractors are owed millions of dollars. CEO David Parkes didn’t return our phone calls Monday, but his letter to subcontractors says the zoo also owed Harris hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said the zoo management team refused to cooperate and called it inexcusable.

The unpaid portion is more than $2 million, which is just more than 3% of the project. The rest has been paid. But for the subcontractors, it could mean the difference between staying open or closing up shop.

“Some of us, we’re lucky to make 5 percent or 10 percent on the job,” one said. “That could be our profit.”

The subs we talked to didn’t want to be identified, saying Harris Construction may be partly to blame and they’re afraid the contractor might not hire them as retaliation for going public.

Zoo board chairman John Valentino admitted to Action News the zoo is withholding more than $2 million but said the board holds Measure Z money to be sacred since it comes from taxpayers. And they’re disputing whether Harris finished the African Adventure project properly. Valentino said the zoo “has no issues with subcontractors and wants them all paid right now”, but they can’t pay the subs directly.

“We sure could use that money in a bad economy right now,” one subcontractor said.

Both sides say a deal may come soon and when the money comes in, the subcontractors will get the lion’s share.

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