The Newtown Bee – John Voket

2/25/2011

As national, state and local economies begin recovering from the recent recession, a number of initiatives are rolling out to help women- and minority-owned businesses. And here in Newtown, a number of qualifying business owners or principles were interested to hear about the programs.

From Mary Griffin, president of TR Paul, which provides employer benefit and administrative services, to several small business owners like Eunice Laverty who operates Bagel Delight on Church Hill Road, the issue of more fairly allocating set-asides for women- and minority-owned businesses resonated positively.

In late January, several parties concerned with how well state agencies comply with required set-aside criteria for women- and minority-owned businesses came together to discuss options for addressing disparities in the use of state minority contracts.

That meeting resulted in several recommendations from the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), which serves as a liaison between government and its diverse constituents, and convenes stakeholders, including the business, nonprofit, and educational communities, local governments, and the media, to promote awareness of women’s issues.

State law requires that the State of Connecticut’s departments and agencies spend 25 percent of the total value of all their contracts on small businesses, and that 25 percent of that money (or 6.25 percent of the total) be designated for minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs) and women-owned business enterprises (WBEs).

For the purposes of set-aside criteria, current law does not distinguish among businesses owned by members of ethnic minorities and women.

“PCSW invited these groups to the table because we strongly believe that action is best taken collaboratively, and we reject the idea that women and ethnic minorities should vie for the same small allotment of state resources,” said PCSW Executive Director Teresa C. Younger. “We’re committed to working with all interested parties for a legislative resolution that equitably serves all small businesses.”

Businesses Shut Out

On the table is the issue of whether women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses are given equal access to contracts, Ms Younger said. But the greater issue is that all too often, small businesses are shut out of the procurement process, whether those small business-owners are women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, businesspeople with physical disabilities, or members of any other marginalized group.

At its recent meeting, the group discussed updating the 25-year-old Disparity Study currently being used, whether set-asides should have different requirements for WBEs and MBEs, and the deleterious effect of current exemptions, which reduce the overall amount of money contracted to both WBEs and MBEs.

Following the meeting, the PCSW recommended the state conduct a new Disparity Study to ascertain whether discrimination exists in state contracting and, if so, to identify its scope and extent on certain groups. And based on the results of a new Disparity Study, the State of Connecticut should consider separating the set-aside requirements for WBEs and MBEs.

Ms Griffin said that while TR Paul does not currently contract as a vendor to the state, she believes the quarter-century-old standards for set-asides is ripe for review.

“A lot has changed in 25 years,” Ms Griffin told The Newtown Bee this week after hearing about the PCSW proposal. “We don’t do business with the state now, but I regularly review the contracts that are offered by the state for businesses like ours.”

Ms Laverty agreed, saying that she would like to see Connecticut’s set-asides proportionately balanced between women- and minority-owned businesses based on today’s numbers, and not on a 25-year-old standard. She also liked another program the state is piloting to help businesses like Bagel Delight assess energy consumption, and determine if there are any other ways to improve energy efficiency.

Dominion, the owner and operator of Millstone Power Station in Waterford, announced February 19 that it will provide $1 million to Operation Fuel, Inc, in Connecticut to provide energy grants and energy conservation training to small businesses owned by minorities or women. And PSEG Power LLC, which owns and operates the Bridgeport Harbor Generating Station, provided $150,000 for the small business program, bringing the total available to fund the initial pilot program to $1.15 million.

First In The Nation

The pilot program, which will be the first of its kind in the nation, will provide grants of up to $1,000 to help pay about 1,200 eligible businesses’ electricity bills and to conduct education seminars designed to teach the owners how to conserve energy and lower their bills.

“Small businesses such as those they will be assisting play a vital role in the communities in which they operate, creating jobs and making many of their purchases locally,” said Robert M. Blue, senior vice president-law, public policy, and environment. “Helping the owners succeed is good for them, their customers, and their neighbors.”

The program will target small businesses, especially state-certified women- and minority-owned businesses that employ fewer than 50 people and have less than $1 million in annual sales.

Pauline Crisci-Goncalves of Newtown’s Excel Tutoring said, “Any help to a small business is crucial in this struggling economy —it’s a real challenge out there. I notice so may local businesses are closing, so anything that could help women- and minority-owned businesses save money on energy costs would be a great benefit.”

The pilot will be conducted in five urban areas: Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury, New London, and New Haven. A key point of the pilot is focusing on both job creation and retention in order to help the economy recover.

The Small Business Administration also recently launched a new Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program, with the first contracts expected to be awarded by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2011.

“Women-owned businesses are one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy,” said Administrator Karen Mills. “That’s why providing them with all the tools necessary to compete for and win federal contracts is so important. Federal contracts can provide women-owned small businesses with the oxygen they need to take their business to the next level.”

Greater Access Needed

The WOSB Federal Contract Program will provide greater access to federal contracting opportunities for WOSBs by allowing contracting officers, for the first time, to set aside specific contracts for certified businesses. And it will help federal agencies achieve the existing statutory goal of five percent of federal contracting dollars being awarded to WOSBs.

Qualified business owners can upload required documents to http://www.sba.gov/wosb. The SBA also released an application to become an SBA-approved third-party certifier for this program.

Maria DeMarco, whose DeMarco Management Company provided services to Newtown since the municipality acquired the Fairfield Hills facility, said a substantial percentage of her business comes from federal contracts, along with about five percent from the state.

She said programs to help support businesses like hers are more important today than ever, with the growing number of women- and minority-owned companies opening in Connecticut.

“These businesses are a real force in Connecticut’s economy,” Ms DeMarco said. “I would be happy to see more mandated opportunities for these business owners. They still have to work hard to be competitive, but a more proportionate number of set-asides will assure these companies will at least get a seat at the table.”

According to the regional US Census office, The Hartford-East Hartford-West Hartford Metropolitan area had the largest percentage of black-owned businesses in the region at five percent.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned businesses in the US increased by 60.5 percent to 1.9 million, more than triple the national rate of 18 percent. Over the same period, receipts generated by black-owned businesses increased more than 55 percent to $137.5 billion, while the number of black-owned businesses with receipts of $1 million or more increased by more than 35 percent to 14,507.

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