Shortly after Polar Park opened to fans for the WooSox’s first home game in early May, it hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic for community members. The clinic, organized in partnership with the City of Worcester and local organizations, focused on communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. These important efforts should be encouraged and applauded. Yet, by no means do they distract from the serious inequities that have plagued Polar Park’s construction — inequities that the city should now step up to address.

This past spring, reports surfaced that of the $100 million in public contracts awarded to build Polar Park, less than 1% went to certified minority-owned businesses. This was even less than the 4% that the city and project manager reported, raising concerns not only about the abysmal representation of minority-owned businesses in Polar Park’s construction, but also about the city’s efforts to accurately report racial equity data.

This outcome is all the more alarming when juxtaposed with the diverse communities that make up Worcester. Over 42% of the population is Latinx, Black and Asian, and as of 2012, Worcester was home to 3,775 minority-owned businesses.

Despite these serious shortcomings, it is not too late for Worcester to take important remedial steps. Both at Polar Park and city-wide, Worcester officials should act now to ensure the inclusion of minority-owned businesses in future development.

The city should adopt a formal reporting methodology for diversity figures in development projects. As a threshold matter, how diversity numbers are calculated and reported matters. Studies show that transparency and trust are intimately related. Inaccurate reporting at Polar Park eroded trust in local government and undermined Worcester’s equity goals.

By providing detailed, accurate information about minority-owned business inclusion in hiring and public contracts, Worcester can show its dedication to creating an equitable economy for all residents. Further, by dispersing this information widely across public forums, the city can build trust with community members and reflect its commitment to engaging with them directly on the issues that affect their daily lives.

Worcester should also take immediate swift action to address the racial inequities surrounding Polar Park. The city should adopt a formal remediation plan that includes specific and measurable goals for minority engagement in current and future work at the park: future capital improvements and maintenance contracts, as well as vendor and concession plans.

To better understand the gaps in Worcester’s contracting, the city should commission an independent disparity study like those conducted in cities of all sizes across the nation, from Boston to Dallas and Toledo, Ohio. This study would document disparities between the availability of the city’s minority-owned businesses versus their inclusion in public contracts. By pinpointing those areas where business owners of color are most excluded, the study could help the city set tailored racial equity goals and serve as a baseline for measuring future progress.

A disparity study might also reveal the need for changes to the city’s legal landscape. For example, Worcester could amend its Responsible Employer Ordinance to reflect industry-specific hiring goals for minority-owned businesses and employees of color in public contracts. These amendments could help the city achieve sustainable progress by holding contractors accountable to racial equity goals and by creating a pool of funds to support minority-owned business participation. Taken as a small percentage of all public contracts, this funding could ensure that Worcester’s inclusion efforts maintain momentum over time.

Those findings, in turn, could help Worcester to adopt new programs that provide wraparound support for minority business enterprises. In 2019, Worcester launched a Diverse Business Directory, which lists businesses owned by people who self-identify as minority, LGBTQ+, women, veterans, immigrants or individuals with disabilities. While this was an important first step towards greater inclusion, the city should also have a meaningful Minority Business Enterprise certification program that affords real, comprehensive benefits to residents of color seeking to grow their businesses. The certification program, in partnership with community organizations, could host minority-owned small enterprise expos and provide critical training and technical assistance to entrepreneurs of color.

These actions will not undo the harm caused by the overwhelming exclusion of minority-owned businesses from Polar Park, but diversity reporting, remediation plans and disparity studies are all important steps towards economic justice for Worcester residents. If pursued earnestly, city leaders can make strides in remedying a history of inequitable development. It’s time for Worcester to step up and act.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based law center. Heather Odell is an intern with Lawyers for CIvil Rights. Lawyers for Civil Rights is currently leading a federal complaint against the City of Boston on minority contracting.