Small businesses in the Tampa Bay area will have first crack at about $40 million in purchases by Pinellas County, under an expanded Small Business Enterprise program.
The county rolled out the revamped program with an acknowledgment that the first go-round had not worked out as planned. The program is designed to give small businesses a chance to bid on county purchases, but initially there were too few staff members, inadequate ways to track who was using the program and poor communication, officials told about 200 small business representatives at a meeting Friday at the EpiCenter at St. Petersburg College.
“When the county commission looked at data last year and saw that only $70,000 out of $400 million in goods and services went to that small business sector, we knew we needed to do more,” said Ken Welch, commissioner on the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners.
The county now has four staff members specifically to manage the program, and it has put in place new software to track outcomes and send email notifications of opportunities.
It also lifted the ceiling on the “sheltered market” from $25,000 to $100,000. That means qualified small businesses will be given the first chance to bid on any purchase the county makes between $5,000 and $100,000.
Previously, the county went to qualified small businesses first for about $2 million in purchases. Now, it’s about $40 million in purchases.
“Changing the threshold really does change the game,” said Cynthia Johnson, director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at Pinellas County Economic Development.
The county is adding a small business compliance component to capital improvement and consulting contracts, bringing the total potential opportunity for small businesses to work with the county to as much as $175 million a year, said Joe Lauro, director of Pinellas County purchasing.
The county began an effort to expand the program about a year ago, Welch said, and it was a top priority when commissioners began interviewing candidates for a new county administrator.
“What I want to stress is the commitment that we have to working with you to make this program work and working for everyone,” said Barry Burton, Pinellas County administrator, who began work in late October. “It’s vital that we create those opportunities to where we can have a strong local economy built on the foundation of small businesses.”
Pinellas County’s Small Business Enterprise program is race and gender neutral, Johnson said.
“Race and gender specific programs are wonderful. They have a purpose and they have a time frame. They are there because there’s a deficiency. The goal is to clear it up and when they clear it up, it goes away,” Johnson said. “A small business enterprise program is a foundational program. In Pinellas County, small businesses with 50 or fewer employees make up 95 percent of our business population. So we’re talking about creating a program that’s going to be sustainable for the majority of our business community.”
To participate in the program, companies must be located in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Manatee counties, and have 50 full-time employees or less. For service companies, annual sales cannot exceed a maximum three-year average of $3 million; the three-year average for annual sales rises to $8 million for construction service providers. Companies also must take part in business development education.
Pinellas County is partnering with several local government agencies on the SBE program, including the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Pinellas County School Board.
While each government agency has its own processes, they will have reciprocity so that small businesses will not have to fill out the paperwork to be qualified separately by each agency, Johnson said.
“We are invested in your success. Our goal is for you to create more and better jobs for our citizens. In order to do that we have to help you create sustainable businesses,” Johnson said.