As the fast-tracked drive to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge moves into its next phase -- with preparations for heavy construction now getting under way -- state officials on Thursday urged minority- and female-owned businesses to hurry up and do the paperwork necessary to qualify as bidders for some $400 million in contracts.

State and federal laws require that at least 10 percent of the value of contracts awarded for the project go to women and minorities.

A three-hour morning forum focused on the bidding process kicked off with a generous buffet of bagels, fruit salad and Danish pastries in a packed ballroom at the Westchester Marriott Tarrytown hotel. About 170 attendees then sat in rapt silence as a panel of speakers described an enticing array of opportunities in a five-year project that is still figuring out its many needs.

"It has been talk, talk, talk for a very long time, but we are now ready for action. The door for subcontracting opportunities is just now opening," said Brian Conybeare, a special adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The new bridge is the first major test of the state's new design-build law, which awards general contracts covering both the design and construction of major facilities to consortiums capable of handling every aspect of a project. The law holds winning consortiums accountable for cost overruns as well. In December, a consortium known as Tappan Zee Constructors -- led by Fluor Enterprises of Irving, Texas -- was chosen to build the new bridge.

State officials told prospective subcontractors on Thursday that Tappan Zee Constructors is still working out details of its construction plan. They said subcontractors will need federal certification to compete for work. If subcontractors apply now, an expedited processing system will put necessary documents in their hands within the next three or four months, positioning them to do business once Tappan Zee Constructors has everything organized and ready, officials said.

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'FEW' CONTRACTS ALREADY AWARDED

The speakers encouraged applicants to apply separately for the certification required for state projects relating to bridge construction.

After the forum, Tappan Zee Constructors spokeswoman Carla Julian told Newsday that "a few" contracts already have been awarded to federally certified contractors. But the builder will have a list of construction and service-related contracts to award in the "spring/summertime frame" with "a large portion of the opportunities still to be awarded," she explained in an email.

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To qualify for federal certification as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, a company must have an owner/operator who has at least a 51 percent interest in the company and is a minority -- either female, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander. Other individuals can have their applications reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Additional restrictions limit personal net worth -- not counting personal residences and a few other exceptions -- to $1.32 million.

The forum's crowd thinned after the first hourlong presentation as attendees either rushed to other appointments or stood in the hallway to swap business cards.

Ardith Jobson, a Yonkers-based consultant who offers computer training to job seekers who receive public assistance, said she had just completed her state certification application. She said that attending Thursday's forum had her pumped to complete her federal paperwork.

"It sounds like it can be done," she said.

Leigh Scirbona -- president of Patterson-based Advanced Contracting Concepts, which provides administrative services -- said she already had the state and federal certifications necessary to win contracts and attended Thursday's event because "it was chance to shake a hand, get an email address, make a contact."

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Scirbona said she is excited about the chance to be involved in a "statement-making" bridge.

"Wouldn't it be nice to put your fingerprints on a project like this?" she said.

Thursday's forum will be repeated on Friday in Rockland County. The meeting will take place at 8:30 a.m. at Suffern's Crowne Plaza Hotel, 3 Executive Blvd.

Companies looking for more information can find information on Tappan Zee Constructors website.