PLANTATION — Set-aside programs for minorities and small businesses may become threatened as the number of minority residents catches up with that of whites, prompting cities to consider whether such initiatives are still needed to balance the playing field.

Black business leaders from the tri-county area discussed that issue Friday at the fifth annual South Florida State of the Black Business Forum & Networking Reception.

In celebration of National Black Business Month, observed in August, the Mosaic Group presented the forum at the Renaissance Hotel on Pine Island Road. Business owners and leaders discussed the challenges faced in acquiring contracts with municipalities and business organizations.

One of those challenges is black businesses in South Florida being faced with cities ending their minority programs for city contracts, said Althea Pemsel, procurement officer for the city of Winter Park.

The latest census figures show equal numbers – about one-third each – of whites, blacks and Hispanics living in cities such as Sunrise and Miramar, Pemsel said.

“One of the undertones in governments is do we even need a minority program because after all they are not the minorities anymore,” Pemsel said. “If you combine the Hispanics and the blacks together, that would make that 60 percent.”

“We have to be careful that the tide of ‘sunseting’ minority small business programs doesn’t overtake us,” Pemsel said.

In South Florida, it is fortunate that local officials recognize the makeup of their cities and are willing to ensure the community benefits as a whole but that is not the case in Winter Park, Pemsel said.

“In communities like my city, it is difficult to even get a program because in their minds there is no reason to have one and they don’t need one,” Pemsel said.

That policy has Pemsel worried about black participation in an upcoming $100 million capital project.

“If we are not careful, we will not have any small businesses or minorities getting any of that money although it is bonded public money,” Pemsel said.

Another challenge the black community faces is having the intellectual capital but not the financial investment to grow ideas, said Michael Hall, co-founder of Digital Grass Innovation & Technology Group which trains minority professionals in technology.

To curb that trend, minority businesses must be aware of the suppliers of diversity business programs in their target market, said Dicky Sykes, director of supplier relations and diversity at Broward College.

“Knowledge is power,” Sykes said. “It is a fundamental weakness if you don’t where the money is [because then] you are never going to get it.”

The biggest buyer of services and products are usually government entities and subcontractors, said Dave J. Miller Sr., president/CEO of Miller3 Consulting Inc.

Business owners should network with politicians to gain an edge, he said. “If I want to change policy, I need to network with policymakers,” he said.

Sometimes it is not easy to get in front of the policymakers, said Pemsel, who suggested attending planning and zoning meetings to learn about planned projects. “You learn who the players are and are able to ask questions,” Pemsel said.

Black business owners are also faced with organizations saying they can’t find women or business programs to bid for contracts—a notion that panelists strongly rejected.

“There is a difference between resources and actually wanting to make change,” Hall said. “Until there is some basis of accountability for where the money is going, not too much is going to change.”

Hall also suggested that organizations list their requirements for the contract bidding process to help businesses interested in applying.

“A pre-qualifying measure of what is needed for the job would be helpful,” Hall said. “It is not accidental. It is very strategic when they don’t supply information about how to qualify.”

Panelists also gave advice to help black business owners succeed in the marketplace, such as Pemsel advising the creation of a niche and a vision for a business to advance.

“Be ready for changes in the marketplace,” Pemsel said.

Sykes recommended becoming social media savvy and knowing your target market.

“Become an expert in your brand,” Sykes said. “Know how to sell it better than anyone.”