Rural Washington County is growing its own through federal HUBZone contracts.
Tommy McDonald, mayor of Chipley in rural Washington County, is known for jumping in with both feet when he thinks it matters. When he decided in 1990 that the county needed a Wal-Mart, for example, McDonald flew unannounced to Bentonville, Ark., and talked his way into a meeting with company founder Sam Walton to make his case.
McDonald, who also is Washington County's chamber president and economic developer, says Wal-Mart added 300 jobs in his small town of 4,800 residents. The move didn't hurt local merchants, he says -- store owners credit Wal-Mart for bringing more shoppers to the region.
McDonald was just as aggressive when he learned about a little-known federal program called HUBZone that helps small businesses qualify to bid on government contracts. The HUBZone Act of 1997 requires federal agencies to set aside 2% of contracts for businesses in Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZones). By 2003, the program will increase to 3% of contracts, with an estimated value of $6 billion nationwide.
Realizing the program's potential for Washington County's small companies, McDonald hired Tom Cooper, a retired Navy officer, to help local businesses become qualified contractors. "I've always believed that the best economic development you can get is to grow those businesses you've already got," says McDonald. "They're not taking their business to Latin America, and they're better than any industry you can bring in."
About 20% of the Florida businesses that are HUBZone-qualified are in Washington County. At least three businesses in Chipley have won contracts worth more than $500,000 since last year. Cooper, director of the HUBZone Business Opportunity Center, says he projects businesses in the Chipley area will get another $3 million to $4 million in contracts by the fall.
David Moss, president of Floor Coverings International in Chipley, says the federal contracts have increased his sales by 25%. Randy Morris Logging was awarded two contracts worth a total of $210,000. The company, with annual revenues of about $1.5 million, has hired four more employees -- with benefits -- to handle the extra business.
Cooper also monitors the region's military installations, trying to learn about upcoming contracts. When he sees an opportunity, he helps local businesses fill out the paperwork required to place a bid.
Despite the success, there are still roadblocks with the HUBZone program, McDonald says. "Getting your foot in the door is the hard part," he says. The military bases "don't trust us. They don't think we can do the work."
But when negotiations stall, McDonald doesn't hesitate to call on a higher power. U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Tallahassee, often runs interference for McDonald, most recently meeting with a purchasing officer for the Air Force to negotiate a contract worth $38 million.
As he proved during his unannounced visit with Walton, McDonald says the county's success with HUBZone is largely a matter of making the effort. "You never know until you try something," he says.
For more information on the HUBZone program, click here.
Julie Bettinger can be reached by e-mail at: email@example.com
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