Las Vegas Sun

March 23, 2019

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Hopeful, but wary of stimulus quo

Black business leaders share ideas on federal deals, bemoan disparities

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Steve Marcus

Cornelius Eason, president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce, addresses minority business owners in a workshop at a local community center Wednesday on how to work with the federal government. Eason urged the crowd to follow leads and go after some of the estimated $1.5 billion in stimulus money headed for Nevada.

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Beyond the Sun

The mood was something between a high school reunion and a pumped-up gathering of Who’s Who of Black Las Vegas.

The faces included Hannah Brown, former president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce and once on a top 100 list in Ebony magazine, Napoleon McCallum, the former Oakland Raider, and Cordell Stokes, the son of the nation’s first black big-city mayor.

The 100 or so businessmen and women came to an Urban Chamber of Commerce event Wednesday to find out how to work with the federal government in hopes of catching some trickle-down of the recently signed federal economic stimulus package.

They heard information that was useful, perhaps in a slightly overwhelming, I-didn’t-know-it-was-this-complicated kind of way.

But the meeting also raised themes familiar to black America, mostly under the banner of, “How will we be assured our piece of the pie?” Some in the room were skeptical, given the perception that an old-boy, largely white network still rules Las Vegas roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects. The skepticism carried an undeniable layer of irony, given the legislation bears the signature of the nation’s first black president.

Referring to the federal money and who will get it, Frank Hawkins, former Las Vegas city council member and affordable-housing developer, shrugged and said, “By the time it gets here, the cake’s already baked.”

Yet the anxiety carried with it a measure of hope about the effects of the estimated $1.5 billion headed toward a state facing the highest unemployment rate in 25 years and foreclosures seemingly on every corner.

Cornelius Eason, chamber president, said in opening remarks that he hoped the insurance agents, construction supervisors, doctors, accountants, computer technicians and others in attendance would follow the leads offered by the day’s speakers and learn the Byzantine ways of doing business with the federal government.

Time is of the essence, he reminded.

“People tell me it’ll get better in 18 months,” said Eason, who owns an employment agency. “Well, I don’t have 18 months.”

Heads nodded.

Rick Horn, director of procurement outreach for the Nevada Commission on Economic Development, led the room through a series of government acronyms such as IDIQ — indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity — and Web site addresses. At one point he punched home a main point as inspirational as it was informational: “You know, someone asked me, ‘What does the government buy?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? They buy everything.’ ”

Eric James, an insurance agent, got nods of approval when he raised his hand and implored, “Can you get back to how the stimulus package will affect us on the local level?”

Rudy Malfabon, deputy director of the Nevada Department of Transportation, which stands to get about $200 million for road and highway projects, heard from audience members concerned that learning how to access Web sites or fill out forms will not help if the money flows through the usual network of agencies doing business with the usual big companies that hand subcontracts over to the usual smaller companies.

Malfabon conceded that fewer minority companies have benefitted from transportation contracts in recent years. Normally — meaning, when there is no stimulus package — the agency gets about $200 million a year from the federal government. The share of minority companies in all contracts has dropped from 6 percent to 2 percent, he said.

“I believe there has to be more concern at NDOT ... about the drop in minority contractors,” he said.

“There is encouragement (of contractors), but encouragement only goes so far — there has got to be a hammer” to force contractors to work with minority companies.

Afterward, Hawkins said that without a hammer, the stimulus package money for roads and highways would go to the same companies as always, which he started to count on the fingers of one hand.

“It’s going through the same old funnel,” he said.

Still, Eason said, it is important to educate these smaller businesses ahead of time, to tell them about the procedures.

Horn, the state official, had called those procedures a “big game.”

Eason echoed the comment: “They need to learn how to play the game.”

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