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MTA recruiting LI women- and minority-owned firms to bid on contracts

Cathy Leo, left, co-owner and president of Vinmar

Cathy Leo, left, co-owner and president of Vinmar Precision Metals and her husband, Anthony Leo, co-owner and vice president, in the company's metal fabricating shop in Copiague on April 1, 2015. Under a new MTA initiative, companies like Vinmar Precision Metals will be able to bid as prime or subprime contractors for opportunities with the MTA. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is looking for Long Island businesses -- specifically, companies that are women- or minority-owned -- to become prime contractors on MTA projects.

And the agency is offering training and support to help businesses qualify to initially bid on projects up to $1 million.

The first-ever Long Island outreach effort by the MTA is aimed at increasing the number of local firms participating in its Small Business Development and Mentoring Program.

The agency is hosting two daylong conferences, one in Nassau County on April 21 and another in Suffolk County on May 13, to introduce the program, an effort to get more women- and minority-owned companies certified to bid on the authority's construction and services contracts.

Creating a diverse pool

"Over a period of time, we're going to create a larger pool of diverse qualified contractors who can come in and compete," said MTA chief diversity officer Michael J. Garner. "The beauty of this program is that we are allowing these companies to learn, earn and grow by giving them the opportunity, although they may not have all their resources in place."

The effort focuses on businesses specializing in construction, architecture and engineering, as well as IT, legal, real estate and exterminator services.

The MTA is following the lead of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who last year set a state goal to award 30 percent of government contracts to minority- and women-owned business enterprises. The MTA's goal is to award 30 percent of the work in its proposed $32 billion capital plan for 2015-19 to qualified businesses.

"It is very encouraging to see the MTA engage in this kind of outreach," said Ree S. Wackett, a senior business adviser at the Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University. "It adds a great value for minority- and women-owned businesses to expand their reach with government agencies like MTA."

Training, financing help

The program, open to businesses throughout the MTA service region, offers companies access to capital through a partnership with Carver Federal Savings Bank and access to bonding through New York insurance broker Willis.

"The beauty of this program is it's like one-stop shopping," Garner said. Since it began in 2010, the program has created up to 2,600 jobs and the MTA has awarded 61 contracts to 45 firms totaling $38 million. Of the 186 firms participating, 14 are in Nassau and four are in Suffolk. About 45 firms have graduated after four years in the program, and 71 percent were able to enter the second tier that allows them to bid on projects up to $3 million.

Dominican Republic-born Hely Duarte, president of Zion Contracting LLC in Lynbrook, has been part of the program since 2011. Duarte, 36, a civil engineer, started the painting, lead abatement, masonry and fireproofing company in 2009 with three employees and now has 14.

"As a small contractor, back in the day you didn't get the opportunity to be a prime contractor," said Duarte, who said his first MTA contract was for $210,000 and his latest is for $2 million, to rehabilitate circuit-breaker houses in train yards. "They gave me the opportunity to bid as a prime contractor. Up to that point I was a subcontractor working in some MTA jobs."

To participate in the program, business owners must go through 12 weeks of training. Their companies must be at least one year old and be state certified as minority- or women-owned. Companies designated as disadvantaged by the federal government, such as those owned by service-disabled veterans, could also qualify.

Catherine and Anthony Leo, owners of VinMar Precision Metals Inc. in Copiague, are looking to get into the program. In the past, they have worked indirectly for the MTA, manufacturing aluminum seats and shims for the undercarriage of double-decker trains for Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. through a broker.

A prime opportunity

The Leos, both 58, bought VinMar from Anthony's parents in 2010. In 2012, it became a woman-owned business when Catherine formally became 51 percent owner.

VinMar, with $1.5 million in revenues last year, has gone from five to 15 employees in the past five years. The Leos said a direct contract with the MTA, the largest buyer of buses, rail and subway cars in the country, would help them boost hiring.

The higher volume work that a direct contract would represent "is what increases your revenue," Anthony Leo said. "That is what increases your workforce."

The MTA's offer of support is rare, said Charlene Thompson, MWBE committee chair of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce and president and CEO of Baldwin-based Thompson Economic Development Services. She said recurring impediments for small businesses include access to capital, bonding and insurance, as well as government agencies normally taking a long time to pay.

Not all Long Island businesses "have the technical capacity to get the state contracts," Thompson said. "Your average business owner . . . needs someone to help them navigate how to get government contracts. This opportunity doesn't come around often."

The MTA is holding two conferences

April 21 at 9 a.m.: Nassau County Office of Emergency Management, Morrelly Center, 510 Grumman Rd. W. in Bethpage. Registration deadline: April 13.

May 13 at 9 a.m.: H. Lee Dennison Building, 100 Veterans Memorial Hwy. in Hauppauge. Registration deadline: May 7.

Interested participants must RSVP to gllanos@mtahq.org.

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