On a recent weekday morning, Wayne Lowe stood at the end of an empty parking lot that five years ago was full of cars.
He is best known as the owner of Lowe Toyota, but he is also owner of The Park, an office complex off South Davis Drive. It’s a hidden economic driver in Warner Robins, employing more than 2,000 people.
Five years ago, about twice that many people worked in The Park, Lowe said.
Lowe and others in town lay much of the blame on a government purchasing program called One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services, or OASIS.
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He opened The Park in 1971 after the base commander described a need for office space for contractors doing business at the base. Lowe started with one building and one tenant, Boeing. The Park has since grown to 39 buildings and 256,000 square feet.
He has always reserved it for base contractors and, until OASIS came along, he said, it was always full. “We had a waiting list,” he said.
Today, the complex is about 60 percent full. Five years ago, it was hard to find a parking space, he said, but now empty spaces abound. Companies that remain have moved into smaller spaces as they downsized, he said.
In all, about 1,800 jobs in The Park have been lost, Lowe said.
“If a company was coming into town and had 1,800 employees, we would throw out the red carpet and give them the world,” Lowe said. “I think it has had a big impact on our community.”
OASIS blamed for decrease in businesses
OASIS began in 2014 and is operated by the General Services Administration, the federal government’s purchasing arm. It is touted as an innovative way to make contracting more efficient and to help small businesses do work for the federal government.
Previously, when an organization had a need, it would typically be handled by a single contract, open to any qualified bidders. But under OASIS, those needs might be met by a limited number of businesses with OASIS contracts, called indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts. That means those businesses have provided a price to fill the needs, and the contract can be used on an ongoing basis as the needs arise, rather than issuing a separate contract each time.
It is supposed to save the government money by making contracting more efficient.
“If you look at this from a government perspective, it’s a tool that gets you the help you need faster,” said John Adams, chairman of the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Aerospace Industry Committee. “It certainly makes it more efficient, makes it easier to pull the trigger on things. From that perspective it’s good. If you are sitting on that side of the fence, it makes life easier to some degree.
“But you could certainly argue that it’s doing away with small business instead of helping them.”
Dan Rhoades, director of strategy for the 21st Century Partnership, suspects OASIS is to blame for “the vast majority” of empty buildings in Warner Robins that were once occupied by aerospace companies.
Far fewer companies are involved in meeting the needs that are now contracted through OASIS, he said. The program is used not only throughout the military but by all of the federal government.
“We’ve had a decrease in the population of businesses in the community,” Rhoades said.
In 2013, the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Aerospace Industry Committee counted 139 members representing 89 organizations. Today, it has 86 members representing 63. Although the membership includes a few nonprofits such as the 21st Century Partnership, it is mostly made up of aerospace businesses.
The 21st Century Partnership is an independent group supported by local businesses and local governments with the aim of promoting Robins, luring new missions and protecting existing jobs connected to Robins. Its office space is in The Park, donated by Lowe.
Lowe said most of the companies that left his park told him they were leaving because they had lost their contracts. They didn’t mention OASIS, he said, but once he learned about the program, he became convinced that was the reason behind the losses.
He provided a list of companies that have left The Park since 2013. The Telegraph reached out to all of them to find out why they left. The only one that answered said they had rented an office in anticipation of needing a single management employee, but that never happened, so the office was never used.
Air Force numbers tell a different story
The Telegraph requested an interview with a Robins Air Force Base official who could discuss OASIS and its impact, and the base public affairs office asked for questions in writing. The questions were referred to Farris Welsh, director of the Office of Small Business Programs at Air Force Materiel Command, the parent agency of Robins.
She said in a written response that OASIS is “one of the many tools” that the Air Force uses to meet acquisition needs. She also said that in fiscal 2017, the Air Force awarded $6 billion in contracts to small businesses, which is double the amount in fiscal 2013. She cited figures that stated Robins had contracts with 44 local small business in 2013, for a total of $31 million.
In 2017, the base had contracts with 45 local small businesses for $79 million. When including small businesses that are not local, she said the base had contracts with 650 small businesses in 2013 for $393 million and 701 in 2017 for $554 million.
But those questioning OASIS say the empty buildings tell a different story.
Rhoades said the number of contracted workers on base has likely not changed as a result of OASIS. It’s the administrative jobs off base — the people who managed the on-base personnel — that have been lost, he said, which is why more offices have closed.
Most of the companies with OASIS contracts are based in the Washington, D.C., area, he said, so contracted jobs once managed locally are now managed elsewhere. He estimates that to mean hundreds of jobs lost.
He argued that taxpayers overall are hurt because the number of businesses competing for contracts has been greatly reduced as a result of OASIS.
‘It has certainly been a topic of discussion’
Adams, the chairman of the chamber’s Aerospace Industry Committee, said some local businesses have benefited from OASIS, so there is some support for it. But he said there are probably more members of the committee who are against the program.
Officially, the committee is not taking a position, and Adams offered perspective for and against it. But he said there is growing interest in OASIS and its impact.
“It has certainly been a topic of discussion,” he said. “I’ve got members on both sides of the fence. I would say the general opinion is, there are probably more that are skeptical about its benefits than are positive. Then there are some that, for lack of a better term, are agnostic.”
The committee is looking into holding an event in August to give local businesses a chance to learn more about OASIS and to hear from government officials in charge of it. A date has not been set.
“We’ve lost a lot of small businesses that have either gone out of business or consolidated elsewhere as a result of consolidation of contracts,” Adams said.
OASIS may be a “prime player” in the decline, he said, but there could be other factors. Among those, he mentioned an overall trend of companies reducing overhead by cutting back satellite offices and relying more on technologies such as virtual meetings. He noted that Lockheed Martin, the builder of the C-5 and C-130 maintained at Robins, no longer has an office here, while it once had a large presence. There are Lockheed Martin employees on base, he said, but not a local office.
Local businesses impacted
John Willis blames OASIS for forcing him to sell his company, International Logistics Group, based in Warner Robins.
Willis is a service-disabled veteran whose business had about 300 employees. When OASIS came along, many of his contracts at Robins were canceled and handed over to companies with an OASIS contract.
One benefit of OASIS touted by the government is that small businesses can do government work by subcontracting through companies that have a direct OASIS contract, commonly called prime contractors. Willis was able to work as a subcontractor for the OASIS companies, but he said he ran into a cash-flow problem. Other businesses met the same fate, he said.
“A lot of your small businesses here in Georgia were replaced with larger businesses from out of state,” he said.
When he was doing work directly for the government, he was paid every 20 days, but one OASIS company paid him only every 90 days. He wasn’t able to meet his payroll, or even borrow enough money to tide him over, so he eventually sold.
Now, most of his employees are still working at Robins under the new ownership, but there were about 20 employees in management and administration who were left out of work.
“I can categorically say the only reason I sold my business was because of a cash-flow problem caused by OASIS,” he said.
Option for renewal of OASIS is approaching
OASIS contracts are awarded in two categories. One is unrestricted and can go to businesses of any size. The other is set aside for small businesses, but those businesses can have as many as 1,500 employees, depending on the category of work.
The definition of a small business varies by the type of business. In the small-business category of OASIS, 130 businesses were awarded contracts in 2014, and that has now grown to 159.
The OASIS contracts were for five years with another five-year option, which will come due in February. Shearer said it’s probably too close to the option date for the government to consider going a completely different route, so he expects OASIS to be renewed. But he said he hopes changes will be considered to allow more businesses to participate.
Rhoades said he would like to see OASIS reformed to allow more businesses to compete for work.
“Anytime we are limiting the amount of people that can compete, (it) is a bad thing,” he said. “It should be open to anybody with the ability to perform the contract.”