Minorities report for work
Winning government contacts can be difficult, primarily because of the paperwork. For instance, getting work at the Port of Portland, in particularly the Portland International Airport (PDX), is especially arduous, given all the Homeland Security clearance required.
At a recent open house at the McMenamin's Kennedy School in Northeast Portland, food and drink were laid out at a convenient hour (3 p.m.) for those in the trades so they could network with decision makers. The event was put on by three agencies who currently are flush with public money and keen to get things built: The Port of Portland, Prosper Portland and Portland Public Schools. The Port has a billion-dollar expansion in the works. Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission) has properties all over town it wants to develop, the biggest of which is the old Post Office in the Pearl District (also known as the Broadway Corridor). And PPS has a fresh bond measure with four schools to build or renovate, including Lincoln High.
The event was targeted at those for whom the playing field is not level: Disadvantaged, Minority, Women, Service-Disabled Veteran and/or Emerging Small Businesses.
Enjoying acting as master of ceremonies, Kimberly Mitchell-Phillips, the Port of Portland's small business development program manager, said she was there to look for new small businesses that were not on her radar. When an agency like the Port sends out a request for proposals (RFP) it's Mitchell-Phillips's job to make sure these businesses at least throw their hat in the ring, with a properly-crafted proposal and all the right compliance paperwork. As she stressed, it's no guarantee they'll be selected.
"We have a billion-dollar airport remodel, and that's a lot of work, a lot of opportunity and we want to bring everybody to the table," she told the Business Tribune. "It's a lot of general construction, from roofing to building out check-in kiosks."
She said the Port will select a general contractor, then she will connect the "big general" with the subcontractors who have shown interest.
"We work very closely with our general contractors, because we spend time in the community building relationships with our local small business owners," she said. "Sometimes our generals aren't from Oregon so it makes it easier for them if we can do some matchmaking. It's still up to them to win the project by a bid...We're like a matchmaker."
There is help for "the little guy." For example, MCIP — Metropolitan Contractor Improvement Partnership — was at the Kennedy School. They hold estimating and bidding workshops.
That includes the SBA — the Small Business Association, which offers resources and classes — as well as the certification office, COBID, because it's not enough to say your business is minority-owned or veteran-owned if you can't prove it.
"I believe you can break up a big package into small chunks that are feasible for the smaller business to take on," she said. "The pros and cons are that the project manager is going to have to manage more subs, but the benefit to me is letting a small business have an opportunity outweighs that management aspect."
What's the advantage of getting in on this public work when there is so much private work around?
"The Port's not always the easiest customer to work with, so I always want a small business to take on a small project with us first."
They might have to work odd hours to deal with the travelling public in a high security area. "If they do like it, having the experience, they're more apt to get more work out of us, it's easier when you know what to expect," she said.
Schools with money
At Portland Public Schools, Aidan Gronaeur now holds the keys to the door. Having done a similar job at Metro and Home Forward, Gronauer is PPS's equity in public purchasing and contracting manager, hired in December 2016.
"My main focus is making sure a percentage of the money PPS spends goes to smaller emerging business," Gronauer said. "We try to bring in the smaller businesses in to meet our project managers face to face. So, when they go out to hire they already have a name to a face."
If they can't hire a minority-owned primary contractor, they still need to use minority businesses, so "a lot of times the primes will say 'Who do you know?' And we can connect them with them that way."
The room was set up with separate tables for architecture, engineering and construction project managers, so the subs could meet them and find out what work is in the pipeline.
"We have a lot of money in the bond measure," Gronauer said. "We're at the tail end of our 2012 bond, Grant High School broke ground this summer, and we have four more schools on the docket."
This is all work small firms can bid on, and PPS's 90 schools are on a mission to bring equity to everything.
"At PPS, we have constant maintenance work, and professional and personal services of all sorts...we have our health and safety stuff, like lead in the water, and we have a fire sprinkler design on the books..."
On most of these large modernizations they need 30 to 40 subs. "There are new small businesses pop up all the time." He sees people moving here or breaking off from bigger firms and starting their own businesses in Portland.
"It normally starts off with a couple of people...like a plumber who he or she decides he wants to be his own boss, then they go through that state to get a business license and then go to COBID to get their women-owned business certification..."
Once certified, they can look for this type of work on big projects where they can grow revenue and improve their reputation.
"We rely on the state to do the compliance check," Gronauer said. "We need to know where to find them and the only way is thought COBID's database." He also goes to OAME (Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs) and NAMCO (National Association of Minority Contractors Oregon) events. "My position is the networker, the business equity person who breaks down the walls of here's what it's like to work with public agencies. Events like this takes me out of the middle and so they can get that face to face connection."
John Cardenas, Public outreach and stakeholder, engagement coordinator for Prosper Portland, said the day was about networking.
"We're trying to develop our pipeline, find out who is ready to work with, as the projects come online," Cardenas said about projects such as the Post Office in the Pearl.
There is a steering committee of 43 people envisioning what to do with the site, which is in a transportation hub, to return it back to the neighborhood.
One idea is that the Post Office building could be used for three-to-five years for art installations and creative office space until it is torn down. Prosper Portland is as much about encouraging startups as it is about finding subs to work on construction projects.
What would Prosper Portland get out of the open house?
"Some of the soft things today are to get to know people, to reintroduce ourselves as Prosper Portland not Portland Development Corporation," Cardenas said. "To let folks in the workforce know that we are still here, make sure they know we're still building buildings, and still focused on entrepreneurs, particularly people of color and women owned businesses."
This is very much part of Prosper Portland Executive Director Kimberley Branam's rebranding and attempt to atone for past sins, such as clearing African American out of Williams Avenue to make way for Legacy Emanuel hospital.
"There is no time like the present to get to know people, so when it happens it won't be a surprise," he said. "This event today is an experiment, the three of us came together because we know there are people who know how to work with government entities, and there are people who know nothing."
Cardenas said they have been impressed with the way Metro and the Port work with minorities.
Cardenas recommends small businesses show up at breakfast lectures and networking happy hours.
"Portland is a small town, it's all relationship based," he said. "Portland can feel exclusionary, we try to be mindful that we are offering opportunities far and wide, in a way we never have before."
Carrie Kelly is a facility manager at the Port's headquarter building. She's seen contractors looking to do minor construction work, cleaning companies and paper suppliers.
She's been a facility manager for 17 years at Adidas, Vestas and ESCO. Her job is to find the right people. If she already has a cleaning company, she notifies the others when the contract is up for renewal so they can bid. "We want them to know we're rooting for them."
Kelly's work relates to the Port's headquarters, not the huge airport expansion. In front of her she has a handful of cards left by hopeful companies. She might be looking for small items, such as renting a scissor lift for putting up holiday decorations.
Bijoy Nair is with iCan Associates, who does computer aided design and drafting, has a specialty in 3D laser scanning. (This allows buildings to be scanned inside and out and reproduced as a computer model for architects. He estimates it would take 10 days to scan the Kennedy School.) Laser scans are accurate to two millimeters per room, whereas stitched together photos are more like an inch.
His work is all about BIM and CAD. A principal in his firm, Nair was at the event to meet both owners and AEC people. Being originally from India makes his company minority-owned. To get new work, he takes lunch and learn sessions to architecture firms so they can catch up on cutting edge technology.
"The market is expanding and a lot of people are using the same technology," Nair said. "There's a big learning curve in using the scanner and the modelling, so I think we're much better than an architecture firm."
Drones are coming in for smaller scans (using overlapping photos), and he's excited about virtual and augmented reality. Owners love putting on the goggles and walking through a future building. "And an engineer can look at the plans in the field without having to go back to the office."
He said they benefit from the hiring of minorities.
Catherin Corliss is a principal at women-owned Angelo Planning Group, which does land use and transportation planning. They help facilitate the process of concept plans down to development applications.
"Schools have to submit a land use application and we help them submit it." Most of the staff have a master's degree in urban and regional planning. They also help small city governments plan their cities, or regulate things like AirBnb rules.
It's complicated paperwork. For the Port, Angelo Planning Group did research into how a federal decision about flood plains would affect them. The Port has plenty of flood plain property.
"It's a small project, but it's nice that a small business can have that relationship with a big agency," she said.
Corliss enjoyed the event, even though she had just come from a much bigger convention of land use planners at the Oregon Convention Center, the OAPA.
"It's always great to connect," she said. "And it's good to hear when RFPs and 'on call' contract lists are coming out."
In the end, around 300 people from small businesses showed up, according to Kimberly Mitchell-Phillips from the Port.
Who normally does the paperwork?
"The business owners. They go online and do it, so to have COBID right here to help really speeds the process," she said. "There are firms you can pay to do it before you, but the state of Oregon has really simplified it. It's all online. It's as easy as TurboTax. You can do it in one day if you have all your records ready to go."
The rush is on.
"We connected with new businesses who didn't even know about certification, and we connected then directly with COBID," Mitchell-Phillips said. "Certification takes 30 days and some of the opportunities are coming out in 30 to 60 days."
John Gaynor was there with his wife Julie Gaynor. He's in the metal fabrication business, she's in the sign business. John Gaynor's Swan Island Sheet Metal Works makes anything metal, including stairways and the Blue Beacon truck wash at Jubitz truck stop. He's hoping to get more work from the Port. His firm is a certified small business.
"We don't know all the ins and outs of how the government entities work, thankfully the Port has been very helpful. It was scary, they require a lot of stuff that we weren't used to. We don't have a big administrative crew. I do it with my office manager and field foreman. We had to put our heads together to make sure it was done correct."
Mainly, the Port wants documentation of everything, so it can be rebuilt if necessary, and everything was inspected and certified. "Everything comes with a paper trail, it's out in the open." The opposite of that would be someone wanting a stainless counter top in their home.
Julie Gaynor is a controller at Anderson Signs, which makes all sort of signs. For PPS, they make the magnetic signs that stick on school buses, advertising the need to hire more school bus drivers. Working with PPS was easy. "We work with PPS's transportation division. As long as you know what you're doing, they can prove everything, it's pretty simple," she said.
The Gaynors came straight from work. They had literally been called an hour earlier by the Port, which shows how hard all parties are trying to level the playing field.
Joel Saxe was there representing Lumaware Safety, which makes glow in the dark exit signs. They don't need power, which is useful in a blackout or fire. He was there pitching his sign to building and procurement managers. Lumaware also makes a luminous tape and a two-part epoxy.
"I'm here looking to make connections with Portland Public Schools and Prosper Portland and other government agencies. Once they generate interest they usually ask me to submit a W9 form and I get on their preferred vendor list." He waits for a call. "ODOT has placed a small test order and I'm waiting for the result of the test any day now." He got in contact with ODOT though Salem Capital Connection in Salem, a last Tuesday of the month meeting to help small businesses to make contacts with the state.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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