2 graduates from Howard University and Norfolk State University are working together to bring one of the largest road construction projects in Virginia! Get the full story from Trevor Metcalfe at Inside Business.
It’s been a pretty good homecoming for Chesapeake native Thomas Calhoun Jr., all things considered.
The Norfolk State University graduate just secured a $600,000 contract for his employer to work on one of the largest roads projects in Virginia history.
Blackstar Diversified Enterprises, a Black-owned small business with headquarters in Baltimore and New Orleans, is providing key electrical components for much of the construction work on the $3.8 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project. And the company hopes that the contract will be the first of many it secures in Hampton Roads.
“I’m super proud of this particular project,” Calhoun said.
Blackstar’s leadership combines decades of experience and the foundational education from two historically black colleges and universities. Founder, owner and principal officer Hugh Blackwell earned his bachelor of science degree from Howard University. After working for years for companies like Siemens, Blackwell started Blackstar in 2016.
After finishing school at Norfolk State in 2000, Calhoun moved to the Washington, D.C., area and worked for companies like Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems in software development and management consulting. After a few years, he shifted to full-time entrepreneurship.
“I decided that ‘I get it. I can do this,’” Calhoun said.
That decision led Calhoun on a path toward Blackstar. After meeting at church and working on a few projects together, Calhoun joined Blackwell as the company’s vice president of marketing and innovation.
The company specializes in helping facilitate infrastructure projects in Virginia, Maryland and the D.C. area. It makes electrical equipment at its New Orleans location for use in everything from car tunnels to the Washington Metro. In Hampton Roads, Blackstar has sold electrical equipment for U.S. Navy dry docks. The company also makes and sells traffic equipment like traffic signals, traffic control cabinets and parking gates.
Calhoun said he found out about the bridge-tunnel job through an article in Inside Business about the Virginia Department of Transportation looking for small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses to fill hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. Calhoun said he had to chase down the job while running his startup investment business, Nafasi, at the same time.
“We were just persistent, and eventually we got the opportunity,” he said.
The work was complex and under a tight deadline, Blackwell said. Blackstar had to ship 10 transformers, each weighing 18,000 pounds, from a supplier in South Carolina to its New Orleans facility. Once there, the company used cranes to mount the transformers on skids — steel rectangular bases that can contain the transformer fluids in case of leaks. The company then put the units on flatbed trucks and shipped them to Virginia the same day. The transformers will help power equipment like the tunnel boring machines in remote locations.
“It was a pretty good stress test of what our company can handle,” Blackwell said.
For Calhoun, the contract is an immense source of pride — the company was able to successfully transport all of the skids to the tunnel site and beat its summer deadline by several months. It was equally impressive for the company to do all this and survive during a global pandemic, he said.
“That’s a feat, in and of itself,” Calhoun added.
Blackwell said he was driven by a chance to help upgrade and maintain the country’s aging infrastructure. In its most recent report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+ and said the country needs close to $2 trillion in improvements.
“Firms like ours need to exist,” Blackwell said. “We need to exist.”
The bridge-tunnel project plans to add two more two-lane tunnels to the HRBT and widen the four-lane portions of Interstate 64 in Hampton and Norfolk. The project is expected to be complete by November 2025.
Blackstar isn’t finished working in Hampton Roads, either, Blackwell said. The company is bidding on several more local contracts. Additionally, he hopes to start hiring more talent and establishing a pipeline from schools like Norfolk State and Hampton University.
“We are definitely here to stay,” he said.