New group in Northern Virginia has sights on RichmondFebruary 28, 2011 6:00 AM
by Paul Koscak
Just when you thought there were plenty of business groups to go around, another one comes along. That might be the typical reaction to the Fairfax County-based Virginia Small Business Partnership, which formed last year.
Its founders say they are trying to provide a voice for small-business owners at the state Capitol. A number of other organizations, such as chambers of commerce, already appear to be doing that, but the partnership maintains it is strictly an advocacy group that looks to its members for issues.
“The chambers do training and education,” says Paul Miller, the partnership’s chairman. “We’re not doing that. We tell Richmond what we want.”
The nascent organization already has a list of 120 members who pay $35 per year to join.
Four people with substantial Capitol Hill and statehouse experience run the partnership:
Miller is the founder and president of a government affairs firm Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies LLC in Fairfax and recently was named chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia’s Small Business Coalition.
David Skiles, a former legislative aide to a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, is president of the partnership. He works state government relations for Miller/Wenhold where he oversees the firm’s state government relations.
Loretta Herrington, a former federal official with experience in mining safety, international emergency response and human rights, is a vice president of the partnership. She operates her own business as a public policy consultant.
Mark Johnson is also a vice president. He has managed congressional offices on Capitol Hill and lobbied for a major construction and engineering firm. He now is a lobbyist for Toyota Motor North America.
Although Miller and Skiles are involved with Republican politics, Miller stressed the partnership isn’t connected to any party. “Anyone who knows me knows my political beliefs don’t get in the way with what I do,” he says.
The partnership’s goals during the recent General Assembly session included streamlining procedures for small businesses to get state contracts. “It’s too complicated,” says Skiles, referring to the state’s electronic bidding process for vendors and other programs. For example, small businesses also can qualify for programs targeting companies owned by women and minorities, but guidelines aren’t clear, he says.
The partnership likewise wants the state to adopt the federal 23 percent threshold (where 23 percent of state contracts must be placed with small businesses) and establish a Virginia small business office.
The partnership’s agenda also includes reducing taxes and business regulations.
The organization grew out of a Fairfax business roundtable hosted by Miller/Wenhold that drew dozens of participants. The result of that gathering was a number of recommendations to improve the state’s small-business climate, such as legislation to offer tax credits to businesses that give their employees telework opportunities. Those proposals formed a report that was forwarded to Gov. Bob McDonnell and the legislature. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe will speak at the group’s next summit in September.
One partnership member is Tim Ciampaglio, who runs the Pharos Group in Stafford, a nonprofit organization that finds shelter for homeless veterans. He joined the business group to network but appreciates the “unique opportunity to give direct feedback to the state, to the governor,” he says.
Another member, Spike Williams, the owner of Williams Realty Group in Herndon, joined the partnership to keep abreast of business issues. He wants to use those connections to negotiate health insurance for business owners at group rates.
Like Ciampaglio and Williams, most of the group’s current members are in Northern Virginia, where transportation and alternative energy sources are big issues, Skiles notes. Other parts of the state have different economic interests, creating opportunities for regional chapters, he says. “We cast a wide net, reaching folks from Roanoke to Charlottesville to Virginia Beach.”
So far the partnership has kept a fairly low profile. Rob Clapper, president and chief executive officer of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, was surprised to learn about a new business group in his neighborhood. “I haven’t heard of them, but I would be interested in knowing more,” he says. “Small business is the backbone of the economy, so we’re always looking for strategic alliances.”
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