SAVANNA, Ill. — Businesses around here have long been ready for the opening of the Thomson Correctional Center — ready for the added jobs, potential customers and new homeowners it would bring their towns, and the new investment it would pump into their region.
But what two dozen business representatives learned at a workshop here Monday is that what they really need to be ready for is landing a piece of the action for themselves. And to do that, they need to position their businesses to be able to do contract work with the government.
“We’re not going to tell you that the prison is going to open because nobody knows that,” said Vicky Miller, director of the Illinois Procurement Technical Assistance Center at Black Hawk College, Moline. But if and when it does open, she said, “if you not pre-positioned to work with the government, then you’re not going to be able to.”
Miller joined Beth White, a government contracting specialist at Iowa Procurement Technical Assistance Center at Iowa State University Extension, Bettendorf, to present the workshop, sponsored by Whiteside County Economic Development. The free event, which drew business from across western Illinois and eastern Iowa, was designed to teach them about the process of becoming registered either as a contractor or subcontractor. The workshop touched on many of the how-tos as well as giving attendees an education in the resources that the procurement technical assistance centers, known as PTACs, have available.
The pair stressed that government contracting is not limited to the Thomson prison, which was purchased last month by the federal government. “There are opportunities all around you with cities, the counties and states contracting every day,” Miller said. “We need to drill down and find what area of government buys what you do or sell. That’s what PTAC does.”
White acknowledged that many businesses in the Thomson area have been to similar contracting meetings before. “People got excited, they got ready and then the business didn’t happen,” she said.
But even though no specific opening date is known for the federal prison, she said it can take a business, on average, 18 to 24 months to get qualified to be a government contractor. “If you can sell to a prison, you can probably sell to 15 other agencies,” White added.
Miller pointed to superstorm Sandy on the East Coast as an example of why a supplier might want the government to already know the services and products it provides. In the immediate aftermath, she said Homeland Security was in need of everything from construction services to bottled water and food.
Such services got one of the participants, Eduardo Trujillo, thinking of how his Rock Falls business, Trujillo Electric, could have landed some new business had he been a registered government contractor. “I never thought about that disaster (and my business),” he said.
Others in attendance hoped to learn even more about the future of the prison because they have their sights set on the investment it could mean in the region.
Ronald Vegter, the owner of Cross Creek Golf Course in Morrison and a real estate developer, said he has long been waiting for the new people the prison will bring. “I have 40 lots in town and that prison is going to bring in good people,” he said, adding that he’s been waiting nearly a dozen years for it to materialize. “I can’t wait too many more years; I’m 75.”
Also anxious for the added traffic is Comfort Inn & Suites in Fulton. “We want to learn where to go to find out about contractors coming in so we can offer them a warm, comfy place to stay,” said Amy Poci, the director of operations for Swift Hospitality, which manages the seven-year-old hotel.
Michelle Regenwether, the hotel’s general manager, said she thinks there is a more positive feeling around the region about the prison this time. Before, “there was more of a mix between those wanting it and those who were negative about it. But now with the economy the way it is, a lot more want it now,” she said