Vice President Joe Biden announced this week that in the 100-plus days since the administration’s $787 billion, two-year economic stimulus bill was signed by President Barack Obama, $126 billion has been disbursed–and it’s just the beginning of great things to come. In the second hundred days, he said, Americans will begin to really see the stimulus bill at work in their communities.
“Particularly infrastructure stuff,â€ said Biden in remarks delivered at a business roundtable in New York. He added that the administration has signed off on more than 3,800 projects in every territory and state in the nation. “You don’t see the effect of that yet. That’s the stuff that’s being contracted out,â€ he said.
And that’s exactly what worries minority business owners who fear that they’ll be bypassed or overlooked when those lucrative contracts are handed out.
Old Habits Die Hard
“New day, same old fight,â€ says Richard Copeland, president and CEO of Thor Construction, the nation’s largest black-owned construction firm, and president of the National Association of Minority Contractors.
Copeland says that even though his association’s members are being very proactive in seeking contracting opportunities through the recovery act, many are finding the process to be confusing and cumbersome.
“We’re trying to position ourselves to be at the forefront, but how the money moves through the system still remains a mystery,â€ he explains.
According to Copeland, while some states are more effective at including minority businesses in the process than others, there still appears to be a tendency to give preference to the larger firms with whom procurement officials have worked longest. Sometimes, he said, minority companies are even left out of the bidding process.
“For example, foreclosed or distressed properties are being put in the hands of the traditional power brokers to either manage, demolish, renovate or rent out those properties and by and large they are not businesses of color. We’re fighting to get our fair share,â€ says Copeland. “Lawmakers are saying trust the process; it’s coming. That’s the story we always get: It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming–then, oh, shoot, it’s gone.”
Thor Construction is in the process of negotiating a few deals, but Copeland is concerned about smaller firms that don’t have the same size capacity, capability and political connections as his. He believes that the federal government should include a mandate that stimulus contracts and funds are distributed equitably among businesses and communities as a condition for receiving funds.
According to Small Business Administration spokesman Michael Stamler, $4.5 billion in contracting dollars have been allocated through the recovery act, of which $513.2 million has gone to small businesses and $346.17 to 599 minority-owned businesses.
In an e-mail message, Stamler wrote, “Keep in mind, the minority-owned category is a completely self-identified field with no certification by anyone and no specific reason for a firm to identify itself as one.â€