COMMENTARY: The Seattle Port Commission is committed to helping foster small local businesses

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John Creighton

By John Creighton
For the Northwest Asian Weekly

Small businesses have been the engines of economic growth in America, generating 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years. Small businesses have been the major factor in stimulating economic growth in our country. In today’s economy, small businesses matter even more.  

The Seattle Port Commission is committed to the idea that the economic opportunity created by the port is shared by all segments of our community.  The Commission’s Century Agenda, our 25-year strategic plan to help grow 100,000 new jobs for the region, includes aggressive small business contracting and workforce development goals. We intend to increase the proportion of funds spent by the port with qualified small business firms on construction, goods and services to 40 percent. We have also set the goal to increase workforce training, job and business opportunities for local communities in maritime, trade, travel and logistics.

The Commission approved the creation of the Office of Social Responsibility (OSR) at the port in 2008 to help focus the port’s small business contracting and workforce development initiatives. In January 2010, the Commission unanimously approved a resolution that revised and strengthened the port’s small business initiative. The port’s Small Business Program aims to increase the number of small businesses applying and competing for port procurements and has two main sub-programs: the Small Contractors and Suppliers (SCS) Program and the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Program.

Small business certification for the port’s SCS program parallel’s King County’s certification process: by achieving certification with one agency, a company can do business as a small business with both agencies. Once certified as an SCS, firms can benefit from vendor training and continuing education workshops, as well as procurement incentives.

The port’s DBE Program was established in accordance with U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations.  Most of the port’s DBE opportunities relate to contracting with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which operates under the supervision of the Federal Aviation Administration. It is the port’s policy to ensure nondiscrimination in the award of DOT assisted contracts, create a level playing field on which DBEs can compete fairly for DOT assisted contracts and assist in the development of DBEs, in order to increase their competitiveness in the marketplace.

Last September, the Commission unanimously passed a motion aimed at helping DBEs at Sea-Tac Airport.  The Commission’s motion focused on the DBE food and beverage operators at the airport, many of which have been negatively impacted by the down economy and realignment of airlines at the airport.  The motion directed the port’s CEO to establish criteria for determining whether DBEs should receive relief in the form of lease extensions, allowing them additional time to recoup the investments made in their airport shops, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases.

Some of the DBE restaurants at the airport – including the Africa Lounge and Maki’s – have won national awards.  Yet it is understandable that they are not performing well under the conditions of the last decade.  By historical accident or otherwise, most of the airport’s small business operators were given locations at the ends of concourses with the least passenger traffic, and have shorter leases and higher rents than concessions in the Central Terminal and other prime locations.

The aviation world has been on a roller coaster since 9/11, with airlines merging and going bankrupt, businesses and leisure travelers cutting back on flying and increased security measures making it much more expensive to do business at airports.  Small businesses do not have the same ability as large businesses to spread their losses across dozens of stores.

When the global shipping industry was bleeding billions of dollars in red ink in 2010 because of adverse economic conditions, the Commission approved a rent deferral program, allowing our seaport terminal operators to defer millions of dollars of rent until the end of the year. We did this to give our seaport tenants breathing room during brutal economic conditions, and incentivize them to keep jobs in Seattle and continue increasing cargo shipment though the port.  In 2011, we saw record cargo coming through the Port of Seattle and we were made whole on our rent.

Our job as commissioners is not to pick winners and losers with respect to companies that do business at the port.   But it is our job to make sure that conditions are right for businesses to succeed and create jobs for our community.

For years the port has pursued policies to help business at our airport and seaport succeed and generate economic development for our region.  It is about time that the port put that same sort of focus on helping small businesses in our community succeed, the segment of our economy that accounts for two-thirds of all job created in our country. (end)

John Creighton has served on the Seattle Port Commission since 2006.

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