A new Richland County initiative will help small, local businesses compete for work being done as part of the $1.07 billion transportation improvement program.
While county policymakers are united behind the concept, some suggest the fledgling Office of Small Business Opportunity is taking on too much too fast. They want to be sure the $490,000 office doesn’t duplicate programs available through local colleges and pro-business groups.
So far, the program has certified 36 local businesses that are considered small enough to get special consideration when it comes to awarding contracts, said Justine Jones, assistant director of the county’s newly formed small-local business enterprise division.
As one example, a Richland County road-paving business with fewer than 50 employees could be picked for a job if its bid is close enough to that of a big corporation headquartered elsewhere. The council hasn’t set a margin yet, but is considering 5 percent. Or that same firm might get advance notice about an upcoming project so it has plenty of time to clear its schedule and bid on the work.
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for local business,” Councilman Kelvin Washington said. “The ideal for me? A guy in a pickup truck ... can sustain his company. How we get there? Of course we hash it out like we normally do.”
There appear to be two basic differences of opinion on the 11-member council. One is whether the Office of Small Business Opportunity should be housed within procurement or set up as a separate department, a decision that determines staffing and who is accountable for getting results. The other is whether the office should have a development component – linking small businesses with financial resources, management training, marketing skills and the like.
Efforts to reach chairman Norman Jackson were unsuccessful. Colleagues consider Jackson the biggest advocate for a stand-alone office that addresses both functions.
Councilman Damon Jeter said he’d like the focus limited to helping local businesses participate in the county’s transportation improvement program; he said anything more is redundant.
“We’re growing an office rapidly,” Jeter said. “Cost is one factor and the second is, what is the need? If we’re truly trying to help small businesses, we’re moving in that direction.”
When it comes to providing resources to small businesses, Councilman Paul Livingston said he’d like to see the county collaborate – rather than “overlap” – with programs provided by the city of Columbia and others.
Councilman Torrey Rush said he’s most concerned with making clear who is responsible. “To me, it’s not about growing government. It’s making sure we’re accountable for this new program ... making sure we can verify this program is adhering to what taxpayers voted for.”
In Charleston County, a similar program targeting women- and black-owned businesses has fueled growth in both the number and size of disadvantaged firms, said Barrett Tolbert, Charleston County’s procurement director. An estimated 221 new businesses opened in the past nine years, he said.
And the proportion of Charleston County contracts earned by disadvantaged businesses grew from .5 percent when the program began in 2005 to 16.36 percent today – to a total of $37.7 million since voters there approved a half-cent for transportation improvements, Tolbert said.
Still, Charleston County remains short of its goal of awarding 20 percent of transportation-related projects to women- or black-owned businesses.
Richland County is looking to Charleston County as a guide for its contract program.
But Richland County is taking a different approach by giving preference to local firms – those that are either headquartered in Richland County or have a “significant” presence here. That means at least 25 percent of a company’s employees live in Richland County; or at least half its sales are here.
While Frank Knapp, president of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, was unfamiliar with Richland County’s program, he said local governments need to focus on supporting small businesses.
“Local economies grow mostly on the backs of their small businesses, especially in more rural areas,” Knapp said.
“If we can keep more of these Richland tax dollars with locally owned, small businesses, that will help create jobs and they will go out and create more consumer demand, and that will inspire other businesses to grow.”
Knapp said the majority of new jobs are created by small businesses open less than five years.