Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Navigating federal small business assistance

On an exceptionally beautiful Friday afternoon last week, more than 60 business owners huddled inside a small conference room at Pearson Air Museum in Vancouver.

In each hand was a blue SBA folder filled with no fewer than a dozen multi-colored handouts, with many an entrepreneurial brow knitted with concentration as one speaker after another addressed the group.

The goal for this gathering of businessmen and women was clear: get a small piece of the federal government contract and appropriations pie.

Their prospects: anything but assured.

Organized by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Vancouver) with help from the Vancouver chapter of SCORE, the Small Business Development Center and the Procurement Technical Assistant Centers, the purpose of last week’s meeting was to help entrepreneurs and existing business owners navigate the complex stream of federal assistance programs. And based on several conversations with attendees after the event, it was clear that the meeting had at least partly accomplished its objective.

However, standing in the back of the room, flipping through a copy of my own flurry of handouts, I asked myself a familiar question where matters regarding the federal government are concerned: “Why?”

If the purpose of these government programs is to assist qualified small business owners in bidding for federal contracts, why make the system so complex that it apparently takes a half-dozen business experts and a sitting U.S. Congressman to navigate it?

I do not mean to denigrate the efforts of Baird, SCORE and the Small Business Development Center, an organization that helped start 14 businesses and kept 76 local jobs off the chopping block in 2009, according to SBDC business advisor Jan Harte.

I also realize starting and/or growing a business, especially during an economic downturn, is not easy. It takes hard-work, determination and a willingness to learn the rules of the game – all of which seemed to be on display last week by people like Battle Ground Printing owner Michael Harden and Corporate Resource Alliance CEO Ralph Stevens, just looking for a leg-up.

But knowing that the odds of successfully navigating the bidding process were against the bulk of Friday’s event attendees, I can only speculate what the outcome might be for small business owners like Harden and Stevens if the system were streamlined, more accessible and less complex.