James Ray, coordinator of the Native American Business Enterprises Center for Rural Enterprises of Oklahoma Inc., discusses opportunities for small businesses during a seminar Wednesday at Indian Capital Technology Center. Photo by Betty Ridge

A few days ago, a client approached James Ray, coordinator of the Native American Business Enterprises Center, with a question.

“I need some of that economic stimulus money,” he said. “How can I get a check?”

The money’s out there, but entrepreneurs have to know how to go about getting a contract for a share of it, Ray and his colleague, loan specialist Sam Vaverka, told participants at a seminar Wednesday on “Growing your minority-owned enterprise.” The representatives of Rural Enterprises of Oklahoma presented the program at Indian Capital Technology Center.

While Ray’s program focuses on minority businesses, all sorts of businesses can profit from working with Rural Enterprises, an agency conceived by former U.S. Rep. Wes Watkins to assist prosperity in Oklahoma’s rural areas.

Unlike some websites or pitchmen who claim they can help prospective entrepreneurs get off the ground – for a hefty fee – this assistance comes at no charge to the client. Much of it involves the networking expertise the RE staff has developed through the years.

What many people, like the man who approached Ray earlier this week, don’t realize is that the stimulus money comes through governmental agencies, including cities and states, and through agencies receiving grants, Vaverka said.

Small business owners may receive a chunk of this money by bidding for contracts through these agencies.

“What we do is create opportunities,” Ray said. “With the stimulus money that is there right now, there is beginning to be a lot more opportunity.”

For example, rural community action agencies are performing a lot of weatherization work.

This allows small contractors to bid on installing windows, insulations, weatherstripping, and other energy efficient materials for elderly and low income homeowners.

Ray said housing authorities, rather than building new units, are revamping many of their older ones, installing new air conditioning and heating systems and other improvements.

The army ammunition plant in McAlester has $49 million of work under way.

“It’s one of those projects that people kind of forget is there. You don’t notice it like Tinker Air Force Base,” Ray said.

But there is plenty of opportunity for small subcontractors to bid with large general contractors and work on these efforts.

“Oklahoma is actually the number one state in America right now when it comes to infrastructure projects, roads and bridges,” Vavarka said.

That’s because the state has an eight-year highway plan. When it started receiving stimulus money, groundwork for these projects was complete. They were designed, right-of-way acquired, just awaiting funding.

Not everyone is capable of performing, or wants to perform, a big government contract. There are as many forms of assistance available as there are businesses and clients.

Businesses can obtain microloans for small amounts, from $1,500 to $30,000.

That’s plenty to accomplish some people’s goals.

Vavarka described one business owner who recently obtained a $6,000 loan. His invention: An anchor for soccer nets. It involves metal work and web belts to attach the nets to the ground.

The nets can be moved and the field mowed with no harm to the anchors.

The $6,000 loan may not be very much, but it’s enough to enable that man to obtain the necessary components, assemble the units, and sell them at a profit.

Ray said his office can help companies just getting started, and can refer them to agencies that will help them develop a business plan, such as the Oklahoma Small Business Development Center at Northeastern State University.

He and other RE staff members also can assist established businesses and help them grow. Since they work with a number of businesses, they can help put the pieces of a puzzle into place, allowing two or more businesses to work together to obtain a contract that will benefit all.

“One of the big things that’s not taken advantage of enough is the concept of teamwork, companies working together on a particular project,” he said.

The definition of small business is wider than some people might realize.

“Most of us, when we think of small businesses, we think of mom and pop type things, or businesses with maybe 15 to 20 employees,” Ray said. “According to the Small Business Administration, you can be a small business with 500 employees, or if you’re in manufacturing, you can be a small business with 1,500 employees.”

Ray and Vavarka said some companies that started out small, with one or two founding partners, may do well for a while but need additional assistance as they grow, add personnel and become more complicated. Ray said his office can help companies doing $500,000 worth of business annually, for example, expand, grow and become more profitable.

They said they’re always looking for new clients, and urged entrepreneurs to explore the Rural Enterprises of Oklahoma website.

“Our goal for this year is $21 million of impact,” Ray said.


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