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Alliance aims to boost small businesses opportunities

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By Christina Lee Knauss

Entrepreneurs in the Midlands have a chance to boost their small businesses thanks to a new strategic alliance between the Small Business Administration and Richland County, the city of Columbia and Benedict College.

The alliance became reality on April 9 after the Drive 8(a) Federal Business Summit held at the Sandhill Research and Education Center in Columbia. The event attracted people from around the area interested in learning more about doing business with the federal government through the 8(a) Business Development Program.

SBA administrator Ashley Bell talks with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. (Photo/Allen Brown/Columbia Small Business Development Center)Local leaders say the alliance will give small businesses that want to work with the government the help they need to make that goal a reality.

The 8(a) program is a nine-year initiative that offers a wide range of assistance to firms that are at least 51% owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.

The program is divided into a four-year developmental stage and a five-year transition stage. Participants learn how to grow and market their businesses with the goal of signing a contract with the federal government. Opportunities exist in fields including construction, engineering, training and logistics, information technology and cybersecurity.

Ashley D. Bell, Region IV administrator for the Small Business Administration, said the new alliance is part of a broader effort to bring more small businesses around the state into the 8(a) fold.

He said the number of South Carolina firms participating in the program has dropped in recent years, partly because some participants have completed the program while others did not complete the requirements for a variety of reasons. Currently, South Carolina has 32 firms enrolled in the 8(a) program.

Bell said the SBA’s goal is to make sure that 23% of all federal contracts are awarded to small businesses.

“For the first time in 12 years, we are losing more 8(a) firms in South Carolina than we have new ones coming in,” Bell said. “We are looking for firms that are ready for go from day one, and we want to help them take advantage of every single day of the nine years that they are in the program. If you work with the federal government, you can go on to work with anybody.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the alliance will allow the city to maximize its efforts to help small businesses, particularly through the city’s Office of Business Opportunities, which offers financing, technical assistance and other support to small businesses and those owned by minorities, veterans and women.

In Richland County, the SBA will work with the Office of Small Business Opportunity to get more firms involved in 8(a).

In both Columbia and Richland County, leaders said the alliance will particularly help small businesses operating in distressed areas known as HUB (historically underutilized business) zones.

Roslyn Artis, president of Benedict College, said the new initiative will help the college further its ongoing efforts to reach out to small businesses, particularly minority-owned ones, through its Business Development Center, which was established in 2002.

“We are thrilled to be a strategic partner in the support of small business,” Artis said after signing the alliance. “Partnerships like this one will expand opportunities for small businesses operating in the Benedict College incubator to receive technical assistance, financial and lending support and access to federal opportunities that are largely unavailable without the support of the SBA.”

Small businesses that sign a contract with the federal government can see remarkable growth stemming from one small job, according to Michael Corp, deputy district director for the SBA.

He gave the example of one small construction firm that initially started out with a contract to install a sprinkler system at a military child care center and ended up with $125 million in contracts working at multiple locations on Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter.

South Carolina businessman Louis Lynn said the 8(a) program was a great experience for his company, ENVIRO AgScience, a construction, landscape and design company based in Columbia. Lynn said through the knowledge he gained, his firm was able to secure contracts for work at Fort Jackson, Fort Benning, Camp Lejeune and other locations. ENVIRO AgScience completed the 8(a) program in 2012.

“This program was great for my company and it made us competitive,”” Lynn told participants at the April 9 summit.

In order to qualify for the 8(a) program, a firm must be a small business that has been in operation for two years, be 51% owned and controlled by U.S. citizens who are socially and economically disadvantaged and have a net worth of less than or equal to $250,000 and assets less than $4 million.

More information is available at www.sba.gov/federal-contracting.

This article first appeared in the April 22 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report. 

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