To the editor:
The Times’ recent article “City pulls minority business program” outlines a well-intended and greatly needed program to support local small businesses which have been overly impacted by COVID-19.
I appreciate City Council and staff actively working to find ways to support minori- ty-owned small businesses outside of this program. The need could not be more real. According to the Small Business Administration, earnings by Black-owned businesses have dropped by 11% during COVID-19. Asian-owned businesses experienced the largest impact: a 15% reduction; Latinx-owned businesses saw a 7% earnings loss.
One step that Alexandria could take would be establishing contracting preferences, like those used by the federal and state government, to support minority and women-owned businesses. While these programs are not perfect, there are significant advantages to being an 8a, socio-economic disadvantaged, or 8m, women-owned, certified business – including mentorships, contract set asides and “bonus points” when bid- ding for contracts. The Small or Women-owned or Minority-owned business classification is used by the state of Virginia, which also carries set asides and preferences for state business.
While city staff participate in SWaM events and pro- grams, there are no outlined contracting preferences for minority or woman-owned businesses. Such preferences are allowed by the Code of Virginia, if the public body establishes a data-driven plan in writing. The code also allows for a preference for local businesses if a city uses competitive sealed bidding. I hope that our delegation to the General Assembly will work to expand this local preference provision beyond a specific bidding mechanism but establishing a localized preference is good policy.
In addition to creating a system that advantages businesses that are otherwise disadvantaged, Alexandria can also improve its contracting system by aligning it with the bidding system used by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Electronic Virginia was established as the state’s electronic procurement system. eVA is used by all state agencies as well as numerous counties, cities and universities. It’s a one-stop shop for companies interested in doing business with Virginia or most public entities within the Commonwealth.
Unlike many other cities, Alexandria uses another system called Vendor Self-Service. Having a different system forces a local business to develop two profiles and monitor two different platforms. As a small business owner, I know that finding new leads or bidding opportunities is always a challenge. Centralizing public contract bidding opportunities on a singular site, like eVA, would save entrepreneurs valuable time.
As Alexandria looks for new ways to support our local small businesses, especially those owned by disadvantaged entrepreneurs, leveraging city contracts should be a part of any plan. Let’s use a local woman-owned restaurant for the snacks at city events, a Black-owned transit consultant for future DASH realignment and a Latinx-owned branding and design firm for new collateral.
Personally, I would love to see my local tax dollars used to support local businesses in undertaking or supporting city projects instead of those dollars flowing to consultants based in Philadelphia, Los Angeles or Houston.
-James Lewis, Alexandria