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St. Louis County gives fewer contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses

Work and trades women
Cha Pornea
Special to NPR
Work and trades women

Minority- and women-owned businesses and contractors won just 17% of the $195 million that St. Louis County spent in contracts between 2017 and 2021, according to an independent report commissioned by the county.

Arizona-based Keen Independent Research concluded that 40% of those contracts should have been fulfilled by minority- and women-owned businesses, according to an availability analysis.

“These disparities suggest that there are fewer white woman-owned construction firms and African American- and white woman-owned other services firms in the local marketplace than there would be if there were a level playing field for all groups to form and sustain businesses,” according to the report.

A program to support these businesses is already in place, and without it, the utilization dropped to 5%.

“It's a very good old boy situation. As a Black man, I wasn't welcome. For people who look like me, it's hard to crack,” wrote the owner of a service firm.

The summary report includes anonymous complaints of a double standard, bid shopping and closed networks. Women are also underrepresented in several areas.

“I do feel like women in construction, I feel like we’re in a man’s world,” said a white female owner of a professional services company included in the report.

Keen also gathered information on opportunities for women and people of color within construction roles, outside of company ownership. The current labor hour goals on construction projects for St. Louis County is 25% for people of color and 7% for women. The report concluded that 22% of work hours were from people of color and only 2% from women.

The report found no female mechanics, roofers, brick masons or drywall installers in the St. Louis area.

Aaliyah Terry, owner of PrettyInPaint, a commercial painting service, said the county overlooks some businesses.

“It's all about building connections. For whatever reason, this town seems to be about who you are connected to, not necessarily things being screamed from the rooftop,” Terry said. “It's kind of who you are connected with, that's how a lot of opportunities come about.”

County Executive Sam Page said plans to encourage equitable distribution of opportunities are in the works.

“The available pool of minority and women workers at the job sites does not reflect the makeup of the community,” said Page. “We have to do more to open up workforce development programs and pre-apprenticeship training to get people into these programs.”

The study also indicates marketplace disparity regarding home and business loans, as well as home values, in the St. Louis area. To address these issues, a three-year plan recommended by Keen aims to improve equality in St. Louis County. Improvement points include refined contract goals for M/WBE and small businesses, a small contracts program, staff training and regional partnerships.

“We know that we cannot grow our region unless we have a more vibrant and well-trained workforce. A better-trained workforce means access to good-paying jobs, the abilities of families to purchase homes, to build equity and their investment, and to invest more in their local communities,” said Page.

Keen and county officials will host a virtual public forum to discuss the report and the future of St. Louis County from noon to 1:15 p.m. Feb. 6.

Lauren Brennecke is a senior studying journalism and media studies at Webster University. She is a Fall '23 Newsroom Intern at St. Louis Public Radio.