Plan aims to boost minorities, women

Ehrlich program targets small businesses, too

lack of funding criticized

General Assembly

March 30, 2005|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Emphasizing a commitment to strengthening small businesses and companies owned by minorities and women, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday creation of the Governor's Mentor-Protege Program, a statewide initiative recommended to the administration to help disadvantaged companies.

The program, proposed by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's commission on minority business issues in a report a year ago, teams such businesses, dubbed "proteges," with larger, well-established companies to help improve the smaller companies' revenue and access to government and private contracts.

"Today is about living the second stage of the civil rights movement," Ehrlich said during a news conference yesterday. "It is about economic empowerment in real terms."

Some critics responded to the announcement with questions about the real effect of a program that has no state funding behind it.

"I think it is a political show," said Wayne Frazier, president of the Baltimore-based Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors' Association Inc. and former head of Democrats for Ehrlich. "I think that the administration is searching for a success story."

But Shelonda Stokes, a Baltimore businesswoman and former participant on the Steele commission, praised the administration for following through with the task force's recommendation, which she says will provide needed support for the business community.

"I am ecstatic," Stokes said. "We're very excited about it."

Yesterday's announcement follows criticism of the Ehrlich administration for a discussion between the governor and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer at a Board of Public Works meeting last month, during which they talked about the state's Minority Business Enterprise Program needing to end.

The discussion angered lawmakers, prompting the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus to introduce a measure to guarantee continuation of the MBE program through 2012. The bill is working its way through the House of Delegates.

Meanwhile, Sharon Pinder, secretary of the governor's Office of Minority Affairs, is reviewing data from 75 state agencies to determine the level of minority and female participation in state work in recent years. Pinder said her office is on pace to finish compiling data and to release it at the end of next month.

Pinder, whose office developed the mentoring program proposal along with Steele, said she believes the administration is making strides to help all businesses in Maryland through a variety of initiatives, including the mentoring program.

About 95 percent of Maryland's 400,000 companies are considered small businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Twelve Maryland companies have agreed to be mentors.

Under the initiative, a business seeking a mentor must be a small business or owned by someone who is a minority, a woman or disabled; have been in business for three years; perform a task regularly needed by the industry it serves; and be able to make a two-year commitment to the program.

Although the mentoring program does not have the funding that Frazier suggested it should have, Pinder said yesterday's announcement is the first step in a broader approach to help small businesses.

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