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Going the Extra Mile to Connect Local Businesses to Major Construction Projects

A map of the San Francisco biosolids treatment facility showing existing and planned portions. (Credit: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission)

When San Francisco opens its new $1.3 billion biosolids treatment center in 2025, it will be an expensive but much-needed update to the 40-year-old sewage system. While a good chunk of that money will go to equipment, 12 percent of it — or about $113 million — will be awarded to local businesses. But writing those checks requires more work than simply asking local welders and builders to show up at the worksite.

That’s why the biosolid project will be tapping into the Contractor Assistance Center. This program, run by the city’s Public Utilities Commission, provides local contractors with the resources to compete with larger companies for project bids.

“Think of it as office hours when you’re in college,” says Carolyn Chiu, the project manager for the biosolids center.

The ultimate goal is to grow businesses out of needing the Contractor Assistance Center’s help. Some of its services seem simple, like meet-and-greets and quality computers, but even these small offerings lower the logistical barriers standing between small businesses and San Francisco’s lucrative development.

When Chiu and Ben Poole, who oversees the Contractor Assistance Center, say local employment, they mean something specific: Businesses that are certified as locally-owned by the city government. San Francisco has offered this credential since the 1980s, when the city also began requiring every project it funds to hire some of these certified companies.

Over time, the amount of money projects award has shifted. Right now, says Poole, the city wants 20 percent of construction budgets to go to certified local businesses, though goals are set project by project. Chiu, for example, has her requirement set at 12 percent because the biosolids center requires purchasing a lot of expensive, one-of-a-kind equipment that can’t be sourced from San Francisco.

“The digester costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and only a couple companies in the world provide that,” Poole points out.

Though Chiu has a lower threshold, she and her coworkers decided on that goal before starting any planning or design. It takes time to strategize which contracts can be awarded to which contractors, not to mention meeting any other hiring rules. The biosolids center is partially funded by a federal loan from the Environmental Protection Agency, which comes with the requirement that it bring on federally-registered disadvantaged businesses, primarily owned by women and people of color. The project also has to meet another San Francisco requirement that 30 percent of trade-specific work hours, like plumbing, be clocked by San Francisco residents. Some of these qualifications can overlap with one another, but it’s still several categories that need checking.

“We set it up so we can meet the goals, have time for outreach, carve out the work, and make it manageable,” says Chiu.

Chiu does as much outreach as she can, but local businesses have to know how to navigate higher-stakes bidding processes and complete work on large construction sites. That’s where the assistance center comes in.

“How do you transition from working on houses to biosolid plants, and what about the guy who is a plumber trying to shift into owning the business?” asks Poole. It’s not the technical know-how, but the business skills that the center develops, he says.

One of the most essential duties of the center is to help firms register as locally-owned or owned by a disadvantaged population. That’s required if any of these businesses want to meet Chiu’s or other contractors’ quotas. In addition to assistance with the certification process, the center provides whatever services a fledgling construction business might need. Some options focus on the logistics of owning a construction business. What if you’ve never written a construction bid and estimated work costs? Then you can schedule a one-on-one consultation session with a retired construction manager, who provides free advice on how they might have approached the task.

Or maybe the carpenter-turned-entrepreneur doesn’t have a big enough monitor at home to see blueprints and get a sense of what the project requires. The center has computers with large enough screens contractors can use for just that. If there’s a particularly tricky construction effort going on in the city — like when San Francisco had several contracts to bid out for new green stormwater management installations — those wanting to learn how to do it can come in for a class, complete with a quiz at the end, to make sure they can do the work right.

Other services help build the business’ image, like the meet-and-greets where project managers and local business owners can get to know one another. Recently, Poole says the center recently started bringing in marketing support to design business cards, websites and letterheads.

“It’s about leading that player to the table and making sure they’re competitive with the big guns,” says Chiu.

The center can only lead so far, however. Business owners still have to fill out their own forms, and talk to project managers themselves. And not every small business that comes to the center is successful. The ultimate goal is to grow these operations out of relying on their local business designation, says Poole, but “if we’re maximizing your opportunities and you get a job, but you don’t make a profit and go out of business, then the [local certification] program hasn’t worked.”

Still, Chiu is glad to have the contracting assistance center to tap into, especially for this particular project. The residents served by the biosolid facility have deserved an updated system for a while, says Chiu, and this is also a portion of San Francisco struggling to keep gentrification at a minimum. With the center’s help, she can work to make some of those same residents have a hand in creating a facility meant to support them. “When you step back, you take it for granted because it’s just [part of] what we do,” she says. “But you have to take advantage of it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article contained incorrect figures for the total cost of the biosolids facility and its required amount for local contractors. We’ve corrected the error.

Leslie Nemo is a freelance journalist covering science, nature and infrastructure. You can read her other work in Scientific American, CityLab, The Atlantic and more.

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