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County opens solicitation process to more small businesses

Veronica Brezina

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Unsplash photo by Joe Holland.

Small and minority-owned businesses typically get a mere fraction of projects that more established companies dominate, but Pinellas County is adjusting its procurement solicitation process to help level the playing field. 

The county’s bid solicitation portal was open only to pre-registered Small, Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (SMWBE) up until two months ago. 

“Business owners who have not registered with us can now view bid opportunities and announcements. Previously, if small business owners wanted to see what opportunities were available, they couldn’t view them because the solicitations were private,” Corey McCaster, director for the Pinellas Office of Small Business and Supplier Diversity, said during Thursday’s county commission meeting. 

The user can fully register after reviewing an available project opportunity ranging between $5,000 to $100,000, published publicly through the county’s OpenGov portal. 

“During the year, discussions with internal and external stakeholders brought about ideas of testing the impact of adjusting our program to attract more small businesses. The goal was to see if opening the program up to all local businesses would boost program participation and increase response to SMWBE solicitations published by the county,” McCaster said. 

This year, the county has awarded over $34 million in contracts for various projects. 

“Each year, we continue to grow the number of contracts we are providing to small businesses,” McCaster said, noting how the spending “enters the hands of [Tampa Bay area] entrepreneurs and eventually bank accounts of local small families.” 

Pinellas County’s fiscal year performance on contracts. Image: Pinellas County.

In terms of subcontracting, the foundational eligibility will not change.

The county defines an SMWBE in the construction sector as a company earning less than $8 million a year and employing less than 50 employees. 

For an SMWBE entity in a general service industry, that business must also have less than 50 employees. 

All participating businesses must work in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Manatee counties. 

“In some counties, they’ve made it a little unfair for our folks to bid in the county so by not having that (policy), it opens it up for those outside to hire some of these SMWBEs here locally,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said. 

Although the solicitations are open to contractors within the four counties, there’s an emphasis on working with Pinellas-based businesses, McCaster said. 

Pinellas County Economic Development Director Cynthia Johnson said the county’s construction licensing board provides the small business and supplier diversity a list of their new contractors. The office then solicits them to be part of the SMWBE program. 

This year, the office aims to promote the need for a county-wide vendor fair, secure larger opportunities for small businesses, continue building a partnership with e-commerce giant Amazon to launch a local business accelerator training program, and work with the veteran and disabled-owned businesses.  

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