When a Federal Project’s Reputation Precedes It
My column this week is about local hiring at the construction of the Department of Homeland Security headquarters at St. Elizabeths in Ward 8–why they've gotten better numbers than District projects, percentage-wise, and what that could mean for workforce development down the line. But the other piece of St. Elizabeths' impact is on opportunities for local businesses (which, in turn, tend to hire more local residents).
Unlike with numbers of employees, the General Services Administration and Clark Construction have set public targets for contracting with small, disadvantaged, and woman-owned businesses. They've also disclosed their list of contractors, and whether they're from the District and Ward 8 in particular. It doesn't look that bad, especially considering that capacity in Ward 8 isn't that large, relative to what's underway at St. Elizabeths.
According to James Bunn, executive director of the Ward 8 Business Council (a currently unfunded coalition that will soon transform itself into the Ward 8 Contractors Association, to be supported by membership fees), there are some 112 contractors in the Ward. However, only about 15 of them are "bonded," meaning they can obtain insurance from banks to compensate the project owner should the contractor be unable to complete the work.
"We have some other good companies, but they just haven’t reached that level," Bunn says. "It’s almost impossible unless you do a joint venture with somebody else, and most [larger companies] don’t want to do that."
Meanwhile, larger local contractors often prefer to focus on projects where their participation is mandated, not just encouraged. The Washington Development Industry Council was created three years ago to increase the participation of local companies on construction projects, charging "founding members" $10,000 to join. WDIC president Chrystal Stowe of Smoot Construction says her group is focused more on District-funded projects like the Southwest waterfront, and looking down the road to construction at Walter Reed and St. Elizabeths East Campus.
"Of the customers that we typically do business with, the federal government is not high on the list," Stowe says. "You’re now competing with a much larger pool of businesses for the same opportunities. It’s no surprise that the word has gone out far and wide that there’s a lot of construction going on in the District. In other areas of the country, there’s nothing going on."
Despite GSA's protestations to the contrary, Stowe says they haven't tried very hard to bring local businesses on board.
"Not only is there not any consideration or preference given to doing business with local businesses, there also is no outreach," she said. "How simple would it be for a federal agency to post their solicitation on the Department of Small and Local Business? That’s a keystroke."
The DSLBD's website includes a link to the federal procurement portal, FedBizOpps. But perhaps small businesses would benefit from a more integrated way of finding out what's available to them.