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AOC Ready to Up Small-Business Help

This year, the Architect of the Capitol will pay outside contractors more than $30 million to handle a slew of projects around the Capitol campus, from maintenance work to bug exterminations.

But while Congress has long forced most federal agencies to place an emphasis on hiring minority and small businesses, its efforts have mostly sidestepped the AOC — a consequence of laws that apply only to the executive branch.

The double standard is “scandalous,— said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) at a hearing last week of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. “That’s why we’re going to be doing the oversight.—

Norton has long kept a close eye on how the AOC doles out its contracts, inviting the agency to two hearings since 2008 on small minority and disadvantaged businesses. Acting Architect Stephen Ayers has been a willing participant, touting his in-house efforts to bring the agency up to federal standards.

On Oct. 1, his work will culminate in a memorandum of understanding with the Small Business Administration. The three-year agreement, Ayers said, will enable the AOC to “increase our resources— by relying on the SBA to vet small businesses. The AOC can then use the SBA’s “vast databases— to find suitable contractors.

“We’re in the early stages of rolling it out,— he said in a recent interview. “From my perspective, it’s just the right thing to do.—

AOC officials are also beginning to set aside all contracts from $5,000 to $100,000 for small businesses, with a goal of handing 8 percent of the contracts to small, disadvantaged businesses and 5 percent to female-owned businesses. Like the MOU, the program will begin on Oct. 1.

But the agency has been making progress in recent months without these formal measures.

In fiscal 2008, about 19.5 percent of all AOC contracts went to small businesses; as of Sept. 2, that number had grown to 35.7 percent. Disadvantaged small businesses — or businesses owned by minorities and other “socially disadvantaged— individuals — have received 4.9 percent of contracts so far in fiscal 2009, compared with 3.2 percent in 2008.

At last week’s hearing, Norton, who is the subcommittee chairwoman, applauded Ayers’ efforts. But she also lamented the fact that the agency was still in its “startup— phase; one of the AOC’s largest projects, the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center, didn’t benefit from such efforts, she said.

“I had great problems when we did this massive build-out — just horrific,— she said.

AOC officials, however, point out that $102 million went to small businesses. That’s almost 40 percent of all the money that went to subcontractors for the CVC, a number that exceeds the 35 percent federal standard.

Now that the CVC is built, officials are trying to keep small businesses in the loop. While the CVC cafeteria is run by the large Restaurant Associates, 70 percent of the items in the gift shops come from small vendors, such as the United States Capitol Historical Society, a long-standing group that sells reproductions of historical artifacts and collectible items.

Terrie Rouse, CEO for visitor services at the CVC, is hoping to increase that number by holding a small-business fair or possibly showcasing new merchandise that is “representative of the states and territories of the United States.—

“We think we have some new opportunities,— she said. “I think the more people who know what we’re doing, the more vendors we’ll get.—

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