A Howard County Chamber of Commerce committee is asking County Executive Charles I. Ecker to develop a plan to help nurture the county's 90 minority businesses and aid their efforts to obtain government contracts.
Chamber Vice President Earl Saunders, who oversees the organization's minority business committee, said Howard County has one of the worst records in the Baltimore-Washington corridor in helping with minority-owned businesses.
"I would say the effort has been lukewarm if anything," said Saunders, a black businessman from Ellicott City. "What we're interested in is developing a more dynamic program."
He said the chamber's minority business committee was formed six weeks ago to garner support for firms owned by blacks and other minority groups. He said the county should appoint a minority business commission and expand its economic development office to help those businesses.
Saunders said the county should help minority firms hurdle a major obstacle -- getting the bonding they need to win government contracts. The county should use innovative measures to help those companies get the necessary bonding, or financial backing, he said. He cited existing programs in neighboring Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Ecker, who met last December with a group of minority business owners, acknowledged that the county should do more to help minority firms. He said he favored a county commission, but he said local government's role would be limited.
"We don't want to bend any rules, but we want to work within the existing structure to help them," he said, adding that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1989 placed restrictions on set-aside programs for minority firms. "I think we need businesses that are owned by a cross-section of people."
Dyan Lingle Brasington, the county's economic development administrator, said her agency could help minority firms learn about business opportunities, steer them toward workshops and give them technical assistance.
In Montgomery County, where Brasington was formerly economic development director, officials helped minority companies get bonding by persuading banks to allow businesses to establish track records. Over time, she said, banks gave increasingly higher levels of bonding. The same approach could be used in Howard, she said.
Cecil Bray, assistant county administrator, said 262 businesses that did business with Howard County government last year were certified as minority businesses under an 11-year-old plan to provide 10 percent of all contract work to minority firms. Ninety of them were based in the county.
Those companies received about $5 million in county contracts last year, or 11 percent of the total, he said.
"The current minority business enterprise program is narrowly focused," Bray said. "The program has nothing to do with reaching out to develop minority businesses. We don't have a minority business development program. We really don't."
Saunders, the chamber vice president, said Howard's competitive bidding process imposes more limits on small and minority businesses than those in neighboring jurisdictions.
"The minority business community will have to make their voices be heard, to get the laws changed," he said.