For people like Vonda Peterson, the owner of Creative Access Inc., a small interior planning and design firm in Ellicott City, entering the world of federal contracting is like trying to navigate a foreign country when you don't know the language.
"Learning the jargon and learning the process is most cumbersome," to the point that her firm of 15 to 20 employees spent "the better part of a year" trying to decipher the system. Since each federal agency operates separately, small firms must go through a long, slow process over and over again for each one.
As Maryland prepares for the influx of jobs and government contracts coming along with the federal Base Realignment And Closure process, officials in Howard County have found that small businesses face some significant hurdles. The county's BRAC Business Initiative, designed to give small and minority-owned businesses a better chance to penetrate the often complex federal contracting process appears to be helping, officials said.
Firms often have trouble identifying specific contracts they might qualify for, and contracting officers often don't return calls or emails. Small firms also often have trouble getting loans needed to bolster their capacities, or have trouble connecting to larger, more established contractors to obtain a share of the work.
More than 200 representatives of small and minority-owned businesses, two Maryland congressmen and Howard County and federal agency officials met Tuesday morning in Columbia as part of an effort to de-mystify the federal contracting process and help new players win a slice of the pie.
"This is about how we can match opportunities with people," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who said two years ago he was getting complaints from small and minority business owners that they were having a tough time and needed help.
Headed by Kent Menser, Howard County's Base Realignment and Closure coordinator, and Raj Kudchadkar, his deputy, the 18-month-old program is trying to find and overcome the bureaucratic obstacles blocking small businesses, using a number of "test" companies and closely tracking their progress.
Kudchadkar said that from 20 original firms less than a year ago, the roster has grown to over 1,300 registered companies and the BBI has more than 5,000 small firms and federal agencies on its email list. Officials are tracking the experiences of 21 test firms to help uncover problems.
"We're looking at lessons learned, best practices," he added. Basically, firms must first have the resources to be qualified for the work, then contact the agency's Small Business Office, learn the requirements of specific contracts, make a proposal and finally be awarded the work. That can be easier said than done.
Security defense work with the National Security Agency and the Defense Information Systems Agency at Fort Meade is even tougher to get because much of it requires security clearances, officials said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in North Laurel, Fort Detrick in Frederick County and other agencies are involved.
The BBI effort is changing things, Cummings said.
"It's much better," he said on his way out of the session. "There are no complaints lately," he said because the help being offered in the new process "gives a sense of hope," even for firms that haven't yet obtained a contract. In addition, he said, "they get to know each other" by networking at events like the Columbia meeting, held about every six weeks.
Menser said the BBI is working to learn each firm's capabilities and the requirements sought by federal agencies with contracts to let "and we're matching them one on one."
Since Fort Meade alone pumps $18 billion a year into the central Maryland economy, and the new Cyber Command trying to defeat electronic attacks on America's computers is based at the nearby National Security Agency, area leaders expect a healthy flow of federal contracts for many years. Roughly four-fifths of government intelligence work is performed by private contractors, officials said.
"BRAC is here, and BRAC will end," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman told the group gathered for the two-hour update and networking session at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills. "This operation will not end. Fort Meade growth is going to be here for decades and decades," he said.
Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents parts of eastern Howard County, agreed. "This is not just about BRAC," he said. "This is BRAC and beyond. You'd be crazy to shut it down."
With the recession making private contracts harder to find, Hans Edwards and Tony Hill, owners of Edwards and Hill Office Furniture of Columbia, tried to attract federal business, with the same results. Hill said he figured he could get a contract in a few months, but it took at least a year.
"It's the David and Goliath story," Hill said, explaining that a large firm can assign workers to go after federal work, while small firms don't have the money or the employees to devote full time to federal contracting.
Tamara Chanmugam, chief financial officer of a two-year-old start-up firm called Puente Bridging Solutions based in Ellicott City, said her company uses infrared technology to do energy audits, as well as working with voice and telex connections, but hasn't scored a federal contract yet. The obstacles are daunting, she said, but she's hopeful.
"It's really wonderful that they're trying to do this."