WMU News

Center helps businesses nab government contracts

Aug. 2, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Convincing clients that its services are free is the biggest challenge facing an area agency that in nine months has helped local businesses secure more than $18 million in state and federal contracts and create or retain 85 West Michigan jobs.

Almost a year after it came under the Western Michigan University umbrella, the Southwest Michigan Technical Assistance Center is continuing its efforts to help local businesses land contracts with the state and federal government. University officials recently released statistics for the first three quarters of the center's 1999-2000 grant year, which show that TAC staff members have helped area businesses win nearly $18.3 million in contracts.

According to Michael Black, director of the Southwest Michigan Technical Assistance Center, 67 businesses received services from the center in the third quarter which helped them land $5,535,426 in contracts from the State of Michigan and the U.S. Government. Since the center's grant year began on Oct. 1, 1999, 171 businesses have sought counsel at the TAC, and 85 local jobs have been created or retained thanks to $18,292,759 in contract work nabbed with help from the center. A record year in 1998-99 saw TAC clients bring in $29.5 million in contracts.

"Our biggest challenge is convincing local businesses owners that our services really are free," says Black, who worked for 20 years as a contracting officer with the U.S. Air Force before joining the TAC. "The state and federal government, along with WMU provide our operating funds. Our whole reason for existence is to help people navigate the steps needed to pursue work with the government."

The center, which serves seven counties in southwest Michigan, will provide a computerized market analysis for any business. This report identifies whether the government buys a particular product or service and, if so, details which agencies purchase it, along with the date, quantity and price of the last purchase. If a business decides to pursue a contract, Black will help them screen advertised bid solicitations, obtain specifications and complete the bidding process.

"Orienting people to the forms, procedures and government regulations is one of the most common things we do," Black says. "No doubt, it can be a bit daunting, especially the first time through. But we offer a lot of advice on how to focus in and identify the most crucial elements. For those who are willing to put the time into it, the front-end work can really pay off."

A common misconception he encounters among entrepreneurs is that only large businesses can land government contracts. In reality, the majority of government contract dollars awarded annually go to small businesses. In fact, Black notes, there are a number of "set-aside" categories which earmark particular government contracts exclusively for small businesses or those that are woman- or minority-owned. Certain regions in the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area fall into a "hub zones" -- historically underutilized business districts -- and businesses there are eligible to compete for a number of contracts for which most others cannot vie.

In most cases, Black encourages business owners to consider the government as an extension of their commercial markets. "If a business is successful in other sectors, it likely to find success in contracting with the government," he says.

After 14 years as part of the Kalamazoo County Chamber of Commerce, the TAC became a part of WMU's Office of Business Development Services in the Haworth College of Business in October 1999. The transfer was a natural marriage, Black says, as his clients now have access to other WMU services such as the Women's Business Development Center, and vice versa. The Southwest Michigan Technical Assistance Center serves Allegan, Berrien, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties.

Businesses who want help with government contracting can reach Black at his office at (616) 387-2004.

Media contact: Jessica English, 616 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu

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