John Harmon, of the African American Chamber of Commerce

Late in January the longest shutdown of the federal government in American history — more than a month — ended. But even as shuttered agencies reopened and began to catch up on their work, President Trump was threatening another one in a matter of weeks. In the midst of such uncertainty, can small business owners who rely on federal grants and loan programs count on the government to do its job?

The African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey (AACCNJ) continues to encourage minority and women owned business enterprises (MWBEs) to pursue contracts with the federal government, the organization announced two weeks ago in Trenton.

(The Trenton-based AACCNJ will hold an awards gala on Thursday, February 7, at 5 p.m. at the Venetian in Garfield. The event will include a keynote address from Governor Phil Murphy and honor Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver; Donnell Williams, President-Elect of the National Association of Realtors; Leecia Eve, vice president of state Government Affairs-Verizon; and James Reynolds, CEO of Loop Capital. To register for the event, visit www.aaccnj.com.)

The partial federal government shutdown involuntarily furloughed more than 800,000 government workers and thousands of government agency contractors and vendors, including many in New Jersey. John Harmon, president and CEO of the AACCNJ, said despite the political minutiae and inertia in Washington, small business owners still must continue to pursue government contracts as a viable method to grow and sustain their business.

Carlos Medina of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier this month, the organization hosted a bonding readiness assistance program in Bordentown. More than a dozen small business owners and industry experts attended the first in a series of training and education seminars.

“This program epitomizes what it means to build a stronger, fairer economy for all New Jerseyans,” Harmon said. “The program provides crucial opportunities for MWBEs to effectively compete for government contracts they were unable to bid for and were closed to them in the past.”

The program is a follow through to one of several campaign promises from Gov. Murphy geared toward the broadening the participation of MWBEs in state government procurement programs — a potentially lucrative lure that many small business industry experts contend can ultimately make or break a business.

Under the Murphy administration thousands of minority and women owned businesses continue to reap the benefits from the state government’s ongoing shift of awarding single multimillion dollar service and product contracts to businesses.

In partnership with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) — a state agency, that among other things, assists entrepreneurs with access to capital and small business development and guidance directives — the AACCNJ will be holding frequent training and information seminars geared to assist small business owners through the often complex process of securing government contracts across the state throughout the year.

“This program levels the playing field for many small businesses to contribute to our state’s growth,” said Lori Matheus, NJEDA senior vice president of finance and development. The initiative was launched by the AACCNJ in August on the heels of a widely read and comprehensive report released in May by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) that showed small business loan approval rates soared by more than 154 percent in New Jersey during the first four months of fiscal 2018.

At the time, SBA New Jersey District Director said, “This information tells me that, despite our advances, the SBA New Jersey district office needs to continue its outreach to lenders and borrowers alike to make sure they understand the possible opportunities to them.” To that end, between fiscal years 2014 and 2017, the SBA has not charged any loan origination or other fees for loans under $150,000 — a common threshold for many small business owners and start ups.

However, despite the uptick in the number of MWBEs being awarded single multimillion-dollar service and product contracts from both the state and federal government, since 2015, some area legislators contend the procurement process is still flawed. For example, U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez, Democrat of New York, advocated a two-tiered approach to awarding government contracts. “An approach that will focus on the stabilization and long term growth of a small business is needed,” she said.

Carlos Medina, president and CEO of the statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said even though Hispanic businesses are an integral and substantial part of the nation’s economy, part of the problem facing Hispanic-owned businesses obtaining government contracts has more to do with a largely negative focus on immigration issues rather than Hispanic businesses. “The push by the current administration to disparage at every turn can impact if a Hispanic business is awarded a government contract,” Medina said.

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