BARSTOW - At 84, Art Schlaifer didn't think he'd still be working. Now he has a new job helping small businesses get government contracts.

Schlaifer, a longtime civil engineer with decades of experience in the public and private sectors, opened a small business help desk at the offices of REI Engineering at 200 Williams Street on Tuesday. He said that federal and state government contracts offer lucrative opportunities, but many small business owners don't have the time or knowledge of the process to win contracts.

"There's no place that somebody can go and speak with a real person," he said. "I thought, `I can set up a table and chair and be that square one.' "

He said he decided to volunteer his services after hearing at a procurement seminar that area businesses were not applying for millions of dollars in federal contracts. He plans to be available for contracting advice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon. He hopes to work one-on-one with business owners to guide them through the paperwork.

"It's not hard for businesses to work with the government. It's just hard to get started," he said Ken Eaves, director of vocational programs at Barstow Community College, said that he supports Schlaifer's effort because he thinks some business owners don't know about the opportunities that exist.

"A lot of times the work is out there, but most small businesses don't have the time," he said. "It takes away from the time they are actually out there in their businesses, and they don't think they have capacity to handle it."

He said that although franchises and large corporations have a heavy presence in Barstow, entrepreneurs and individual owners are crucial to the local economy.

"What makes Barstow hum, I believe, is the small business operator," he said.

Some business owners think that with the agencies switching to online purchasing systems and using government credit cards, the contract process has become easier.

"You don't have wait the 30, 60, 90 days to be reimbursed," said Fred Baca, owner of Barstow Office Supply.

He said that he's been supplying toner and office supplies for years to government agencies and understands why some businesses are intimidated by the contracting process.

"A lot of it is not knowing how to approach the government customer," he said. "How do you get on their supply list? What is it that they require?"

Fear of red tape and lack of time are the usual reasons that some small businesses don't pursue government contracts according to Alan Elgendy, government procurement specialist with the Inland Empire Small Business Development Center.

"Smaller business usually need to concentrate on their business, and they don't understand how deep the process is in terms of paperwork," he said.

He said that all government agencies need to buy goods and services, and small business could bid for contracts ranging from $10,000 to several million dollars. In order to qualify, companies need to be registered with government databases and receive e-mail alerts about bid opportunities. Bidders have to fill out lengthy applications and meet with the government agency to ensure that the business has the necessary background for the contract, he said.

"The government right now is looking for established businesses with all of their licenses and certifications," Elgendy said. "They have to be qualified and an existing business, a business with experience in the field that has trade references. Not any business can qualify."

He said that especially at Fort Irwin and the Marine Corps Logistic Base, Barstow, there are numerous opportunities for small businesses to work as contractors or under larger corporations as sub-contractors.

"The US government buys anything and everything, from toilet paper to parts for missiles," he said.

Contact the writer: (760) 256-4126 or jason_smith@link.freedom.com


Looking for help? What: Small business help desk
Where: 200 Williams Street
When: 9 a.m. to noon, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
Cost: Free