After years of austerity-driven decay, Harrisburg’s infrastructure is poised to get a much-needed makeover in the coming decades.
Capital Region Water (CRW) plans to spend $315 million on sewer upgrades in the next 20 years, and Harrisburg hopes to repave miles of roads and sidewalks and improve its parks.
For those with a glass-half-empty mentality, this means that taxpayers are about to shoulder decades of deferred maintenance costs within the city. But Harrisburg and CRW see the projects as opportunities for economic development – which they want to be shared equitably among the city’s population.
To that end, 30 small-business owners in the construction trades attended a panel at the CRW headquarters last night, the first in a series of workshops aimed at helping so-called Disadvantaged Business Enterprises – those headed by minorities, women or members of the LGBT community — to become competitive bidders in public works contracts.
The event series is part of an ongoing push from city hall and CRW to bolster DBE participation in public contracts.
In the past year, CRW has developed a comprehensive diversity supplier program that set minimum participation rates for DBEs in its construction projects. Diversity program manager Tremayne Terry said the plan came about after CRW took a hard look at its contractor and supplier pool.
“We realized that our contractors did not reflect the diversity of our community,” Terry said.
He explained that qualifying as a DBE won’t entitle any firm to public contracts or necessarily give them preference. Law requires a competitive process for any public bid more than $20,000. The entity awarding the contract must choose the qualified firm offering to do the job on the lowest budget.
Some entrepreneurs say that the public bidding process favors larger firms that can prepare time-consuming bids and absorb the low profit margins that sometimes come with public projects.
Terry hopes that the events that CRW has planned with the city will make DBEs more competitive applicants for public projects. And, as more public entities start to set and enforce participation rates, DBEs, which are typically smaller businesses, may find more opportunities for work as subcontractors providing specialized services on large projects.
Over time, Terry hopes that bringing more job opportunities to small DBEs can help some grow into prime contractors – the firms that manage large-scale projects.
Panelists at the event, which included business leaders, nonprofit executives and city administrators, stressed the importance of firms obtaining a third-party DBE certification. These certifications vet firms to determine, among other factors, their ownership and access to capital.
Certified DBEs can then register their status with the city or CRW, which both compile lists of DBEs in various construction trades and professional industries. Members of these lists will receive alerts every time a city or CRW project goes to bid, and they can also be offered as referrals to prime contractors looking for diverse suppliers.
At the end of the panel, questions from the audience circled back to two themes: job training and capacity building.
Many of the entrepreneurs said that one impediment to expanding their businesses was a lack of young people who are trained in trades or eager to learn.
Hubert Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Plumbing, Heating and Renovations, suggested that the scarcity of vocational education in the area shouldn’t deter young people from entering trade professions. He said that apprenticeships with other plumbers taught him all he needed to know to gain certifications.
“The only shortcoming we have is money and time to teach,” Wilson said, referring to the difficulties some small firms face in offering apprenticeships. “You can show kids [a trade], but you need money and will.”
Terry said that CRW has a role in building a pipeline of tradespeople and hopes to partner with industry associations and local schools to make trades programs available to more Harrisburg residents.
“The need for skilled labor isn’t only on the contracting side, and CRW isn’t alone in this need,” Terry said on Thursday. “It’s industry-wide.”