GREAT FALLS (AP)
Montana's general contractors will be able to bid on one of the five federal stimulus projects to build ports on the state's northern border. And the pre-qualified, out-of-state firms that were awarded the four other contracts will be encouraged to hire up to 70 percent of their subcontractors from the local business pool. "There's no doubt in my mind that if Montana companies are given the chance, they will win" the contracts, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. On Saturday, Tester convened a public meeting in Great Falls, bringing the region's engineers and builders together with federal officials from several agencies. The meeting came in response to criticism that local firms had been overlooked in a stimulusfunded effort to build five border ports along the Montana-Canada line. According to Tester, Montana expects to receive $1 billion in stimulus projects, including $77.4 million at the Scobey, Wild Horse, Morgan, Whitetail and Del Bonita border stations. Montana design and building firms cried foul when they learned the general contracting on those projects Would be awarded to a handful of large, preselected companies. That decision was based upon speed, according to Trent Frazier at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Recent stimulus investment provided some $420 million, Frazier said, to rebuild and renovate 23 ports, including the five in Montana. But Frazier said the fed wants half the money on the ground within 120 to 180 days of February's stimulus bill passage, providing immediate jobs to help spur economic recovery. To meet the deadline, Frazier said, government agencies have leaned heavily on broad, pre-existing contracts under which the border work can be inserted. Finding local companies would have added between 100 and 150 days to the schedule, missing the mark for Recovery Act spending, he said. But in order to better spread stimulus dollars throughout the economy, six of the 23 port jobs have been set aside for direct contracting to small businesses. One of those is at Del Bonita, where Montana firms still have a chance to take a lead role. At the other four Montana sites, agencies are requiring the preapproved general contractors to seek local subcontractors, using what Frazier called "very stringent small-business goals." Many of those small-business subcontractors were among the 125 or so that turned out for Saturday's meeting, and while they seemed pleased to hear about the new opportunities they also were critical that more general contracting would not go to locals. Cary Hegreberg of the Montana Contractors Association, urged the agencies to "step back and develop a different process for awarding contracts." Locals can move faster and cheaper, Hegreberg said, a comment that drew applause from the standingroom- only crowd. "We can do the same work they can," agreed Tony Belcourt of Chippewa Creek Construction. He and others estimated Montana is home to a couple of dozen or more design/build teams that could handle the jobs now scheduled for out-of-state contractors. Tester has suggested crafting regional contracting pools, in which local companies can compete for future government work. Frazier said competitive-bid regional pools might be possible. There are long-term plans to rebuild and renovate more than 160 border stations nationwide. He encouraged the region's contractors to begin building relationships now that might turn into job awards later. Regional firms also will have a shot at Recovery Act construction projects not on the border, including work in Billings, Bozeman and Malmstrom Air Force Base. At $80 million, the planned federal courthouse in Billings is one of the largest projects, and will be bid in open competition, with 60 percent of the subcontracting set aside for local firms. That's in addition to smallbusiness goals built into the project's general contract, and an estimated $11 million set-aside for site-preparation work.