Black Business Leaders, Native Firms Shake Hands

Elizabeth Bluemink, Anchorage Daily News, May 28, 2008

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In Alaska, Native firms became some the state’s largest companies in recent years because of their federal contracting businesses. Some of their contracts have been worth billions.

Many now operate globally, providing security at military bases, digitizing government records and installing bridges and classrooms. Their success is visible in Anchorage, where many of the shiny new office buildings that have sprouted in town are Native corporation headquarters.

But in the Lower 48, the Alaska Native firms have been lambasted by some reform-minded federal lawmakers and other minority business leaders because of the bidding advantages that Congress, led by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, provided them in the 1980s and 1990s.

But in a matter of months, Alford has gone from fierce opponent to potent ally of the Native firms.

Alford said his main beef with them was that black-owned businesses were getting a smaller piece of the federal contracting pie.

What really rankled: when billions in federal contracting dollars were awarded without competition to Alaska Native firms for post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, while black-owned firms based in the region were bit players, he said.

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Last week, the black chamber brought more than 20 black business executives from around the country to Anchorage. The executives spent a few days networking with Alaska Native firms and other minority-owned businesses based in Alaska. They mixed and shared business tips at a minority contracting conference at a downtown hotel. They went halibut fishing and sight-seeing.

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Many of the black entrepreneurs left Alaska at the end of the week with new business partnerships with Native-owned firms, Alford said Wednesday.

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POLITICAL BENEFITS

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Alford told Alaska business executives at the conference that he’d tell Washington, D.C., lawmakers who have in the past attempted to curtail Alaska Native firms’ contracting advantages to “lay off.”

So far, there have been a lot of Congressional hearings but few changes to the contracting program. The federal Small Business Administration held several consultations with Native organizations last year to get input on how the program could be improved, but the agency hasn’t decided yet whether to make any changes, an SBA spokesman said Wednesday.

Alaska Native organizations spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., last year trying to persuade lawmakers to support the current provisions in federal law that allow Alaska Native firms to obtain contracts of any size without competition. While Congress did not give that ability to most minority-owned companies, it remains available to other multinational firms, they say.

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The black chamber is one of two minority business groups that penned a strategic alliance with the National 8(a) Association last week. The national association is an offshoot of the Alaska 8(a) Association. The Alaska Veterans Business Alliance also penned an agreement with the 8(a) association.

The groups have agreed to meet regularly to discuss legislation or proposed federal rules that could impact their organizations. They also agreed to work together on business training and networking.

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