Opening up opportunities
In 2017, the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded nearly $190 million-worth of project contracts to private companies. It's a pipeline of work that Colonel Stephen Dorf, the District's commander, doesn't expct to slow anytime soon.
"There's billions of dollars in both large and small projects that the District is sponsoring ... over the next few years," Dorf said.
During a recent November day, nearly 200 representatives from private-sector companies attended an Industry Day event sponsored by the Corps at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas to hear about opportunities to work on projects under the direction of the Portland District.
Touted as having one of the Corps' most comprehensive, diversified civil works programs in the country, the Portland District is responsible for operating locks and dams along the Columbia River, managing dams in the Willamette Valley with an eye toward reducing flood damage, and taking a lead on environmental stewardship projects such as fish hatcheries and controlling invasive species.
The District's Hydroelectric Design Center is considered a Corps "Center of Expertise," and the division is regularly tapped as a leader in the country's hydropower generation. The local agency also keeps coastal rivers in Oregon clear for navigation, managing dredging programs while also handling repairs of key jetty areas.
In 2015, Congress added one more layer to the tasks the Army Corps' districts handle. After a series of problems caused cost overruns of approximately $1 billion related to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital project in Colorado, Congress ordered the Army Corps to handle management of any future VA projects valued at more than $100 million. For the Portland division, that means gearing up to manage a $130 million seismic upgrade, renovation and expansion at the Veterans Administration Portland Medical Center that's slated to start in a couple of years.
Play by the rules
While most public agencies have a system for accepting bids and awards contracts for projects, the Army Corps' policies and procedures leave little wiggle room.
In order to access project solicitations, for example, companies must access a Corps site that requires pre-approval. That process, which often includes security checks, takes time, so companies attending the Industry Day event were encouraged in pursue approval well ahead of when they might be submitting proposals.
During an Industry Day session on the topic, Tracy Wickham, chief of contracting for the Portland District, outlined steps that companies interested in grabbing a piece of project action are required to adhere to. The number one message: miss one box or one deadline and a company is pretty much out the action for a contract award.
"If you don't submit ... on time at the location [specified], you're not going to be in the game," Wickham said.
Everything a company needs to know is in the project solicitation the Corps releases, and following the rules needs to begin even before a proposal is submitted, Wickham said. Site visits and pre-proposal conferences specified in project solicitations, for example, are not optional.
The Corps, including the Portland District, also is embracing technology by moving away from traditional paper proposals, which often required companies bidding for work to submit multiple copies.
"Were trying get away from all of that," Wickham said.
Although the Industry Day sessions focused on providing companies with information about ways to become involved in Corps' projects, the event also provided an opportunity for companies to build relationships and make connections.
Color-coded nametags served as a way for businesses to connect beyond their usual industry circles. Blue edges indicated small businesses, while green-edge name tags identified large companies. All Corps employees wore red-edged name badges.
For estimator Matthew Schulze, the day offered a chance to start to build a network in a new industry. Schulze had joined Vigor Marine, a commercial repair and modernization subsidiary of Portland-based Vigor Industrial, about one month before the Industry Day event.
While Schulze, whose nametag sported a green edging, used the session as a way to identify future projects his company might be interested in bidding on, he also was looking to meet subcontractors that Vigor might partner with in the future.
"In general, we want to support small businesses," Schulze said.
One of those small companies he was able to connect with was Tork Systems, which boasts six employees. Schulze had previously met Josh Smith, who handles outside sales in the Pacific Northwest for Tork, and the Industry Day event gave them a chance to reconnect and get to know each other a bit better.
While Smith said much of the talk about District projects was outside his realm, he did have special interest in two projects during which dredging equipment will be worked on in dry docks.
"Tork is involved in supplying parts to both of those projects," Smith said. "That's one of the main reasons I'm here."
Opportunities for all
In a statement on its website, the Portland District stresses the Corps' commitment to supporting a policy for "placing a fair proportion of our contracts with qualified small, small disadvantaged, women-owned, HUBZone, veteran-owned, and service-disabled veteran-owned business concerns."
It's the job of Carol McIntyre, in the District's Office of Small Business Programs, to make sure that mission is being upheld.
Last year, for example, about 40 percent of the project contract money awarded to private contractors went to small businesses.
While McIntrye said the Portland District has a solid track record for connecting with the small business groups listed in its mission statement, there is one area where McIntyre would like to see more participation: women-owned businesses.
"We need small businesses," McIntyre said. "We need large businesses, but we also need small businesses for a competitive base. Women-owned [business involvement], that's still a challenge."