Alliance aims to boost small businesses opportunities.

By Christina Lee Knauss

Entrepreneurs in the Midlands have a chance to boost their small businesses thanks to a new strategic alliance between the Small Business Administration and Richland County, the city of Columbia and Benedict College.

The alliance became reality on April 9 after the Drive 8(a) Federal Business Summit held at the Sandhill Research and Education Center in Columbia. The event attracted people from around the area interested in learning more about doing business with the federal government through the 8(a) Business Development Program.

Local leaders say the alliance will give small businesses that want to work with the government the help they need to make that goal a reality.

The 8(a) program is a nine-year initiative that offers a wide range of assistance to firms that are at least 51% owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.

The program is divided into a four-year developmental stage and a five-year transition stage. Participants learn how to grow and market their businesses with the goal of signing a contract with the federal government. Opportunities exist in fields including construction, engineering, training and logistics, information technology and cybersecurity.

Ashley D. Bell, Region IV administrator for the Small Business Administration, said the new alliance is part of a broader effort to bring more small businesses around the state into the 8(a) fold.

He said the number of South Carolina firms participating in the program has dropped in recent years,partly because some participants have completed the program while others did not complete the requirements for a variety of reasons. Currently, South Carolina has 32 firms enrolled in the 8(a) program.

Bell said the SBA's goal is to make sure that 23% of all federal contracts are awarded to small businesses.

"For the first time in 12 years, we are losing more 8(a) firms in South Carolina than we have new ones coming in," Bell said. "We are looking for firms that are ready for go from day one, and we want to help them take advantage of every single day of the nine years that they are in the program. If you work with the federal government, you can go on to work with anybody."

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the alliance will allow the city to maximize its efforts to help small businesses, particularly through the city's Office of Business Opportunities, which offers financing, technical assistance and other support to small...

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