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Opportunity is out there: Local contractors attend West Shore levee Industry Day

RESERVE — “Opportunity is out there. You just have to know how to find it.”

David Willis, a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District’s Office of Small Business, shared that that message Wednesday morning at the first St. John the Baptist Parish Contractor Industry Day.

Small business owners of St. John Parish packed the stands at the Regala Gymnasium, eager to learn more about getting involved in the construction of the West Shore Levee Project.

With a completion date aimed at late 2023, the $760 million Levee Project will provide 100-year storm protection for up to 100,000 residents in St. John, St. James and St. Charles parishes. The construction is federally funded, and St. John voters approved a property tax in 2017 expected to generate at least $3 million a year for maintenance costs.

The majority of the levee — 18 miles of the 22-mile alignment — will be located in St. John, and Parish President Natalie Robottom said it is important for locals to be involved.

“We’ve been working on this for some time,” Robottom said. “We definitely want our community to take advantage of this project, most of which is in St. John the Baptist Parish. Our St. John tax dollars are going toward a portion of this project, so we want to keep as many of those dollars as possible here in our parish.”

Demond Lee of D. Lee Trucking and Demolition Services and Terrance Williams of Expert Maintenance Construction Services were among the small business owners who attended Contractor Industry Day.

Lee hoped to explore opportunities for local work. As a resident of St. John Parish, he feels it is important that contracts advertised nationally go to local business owners close to the heart of the levee construction.

Williams echoed Lee’s sentiments. As one of the attendees with the capability to become a prime contractor in the project, Industry Day gave Williams a chance to network with local business owners seeking sub-contracts.

Robottom said there is potential for a future St. John Parish event to pair prime contractors with sub-contractors.

David Willis, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District’s Office of Small Business, addresses the crowd.

Attendees also had a chance to meet with representatives from Louisiana Economic Development, St. John Economic Development, the Louisiana Contractor’s Board, TruFund Financial Services, the Small Business Development Center and the River Region Chamber of Commerce.

LaShaunda P. René said TruFund Financial Services is a small business lender and technical service provider that can help contractors by offering educational courses on bidding and estimating.

“We understand your type and size of business,” René said. “We have experience working with contractors and construction-related industries.”

Wayne Aucoin of the Louisiana Small Business Development Center spoke about the FastTrac program offered on the River Parishes Community College campus. Stacey Scott, member engagement coordinator for the River Region Chamber of Commerce, invited business owners to join and take advantage of 12 free networking events.

Willis told attendees about the Corps’ Office of Small Business.

“There is a world of difference between contracts at the federal, state and parish level,” Willis said, adding contractors must be registered online for their bids to be responsive. He encouraged local business owners to go to fbo.gov to set up email alerts for Corps of Engineers contracts.

West Shore Levee Project senior project manager Chris Gilmore outlined 14 tentative construction contracts. The majority of those 14 contracts are expected to go to small businesses, he said.

Construction contracts should be awarded around this time next year, after the completion of a 10-month design phase projected to begin in November.

However, Gilmore said pre-construction contracts might go out sooner.

Contracts for additional stockpile locations, sand base placement and additional access road and vegetation clearing could be separated or combined into a single contract and awarded within the first months of 2020, he said.