On April 19th at 9 a.m., Pinellas County government leaders will convene a “listening session” with local business owners and community leaders to discuss changes to its small business development and purchasing programs.
Dr. Cynthia Johnson says “If you haven’t already done so, please submit your RSVP asap!” Johnson and other organizers are aiming for a capacity audience of entrepreneurs for the occasion.
The session stems from a new multi-month effort spearheaded by County Commission Chairman Ken Welch, to overhaul the county’s Small Business Enterprise (SBE) program, which has operated with race and gender-neutral policies since 2002.
Before the early 2000s, local governments purposefully targeted a portion of their spending toward ethnic minority-owned enterprises (MBEs), women-owned enterprises (WBEs) and disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs), such as a veteran-owned business.
But a 1999 “disparity study” commissioned by the City of St. Petersburg resulted in a wholesale shift in the practice. The study found that a representative share of the city’s spending went to black-owned and other minority-owned firms. Hence, the thinking went, there was no longer a need for affirmative actions to remedy disparities.
In response, both the City of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County opted for SBE programs that – as of 2002 – no longer tracked or targeted procurement to ethnic minorities or other special groups.
Over time, the shift had disastrous results for small businesses on the whole, and minority-owned firms in particular.
For example, in 2017, Pinellas County government spent about $400 million on the purchase of goods and services, but only about $60,000 of that was spent with SBEs, according to a report by county staff.
Now, after 16 years, the county’s SBE policy is on the drawing board for major revisions.
The April 19th listening session will be important to the process, says Dr. Johnson. Entrepreneurs at all stages of business size and development are welcome to attend the dialogue.