Dave Mack, regional manager for Lacey-based Ace Fire and Security Systems, loves doing business with the state and others online. He is one of a growing number of business people using a state program that allows contractors to use the Internet to view proposed public works projects for bid.

Running for almost a year, the program has a growing following. In theory it helps contractors as well as the state, says Steve Valandra, spokesman for the Department of General Administration (GA). First, it encourages more competitive bids by making it easier to use and access, and that in turn should reduce costs for both the state as well as taxpayers, he says.

The program developed originally by Builders’ Exchange, a plan center in Everett, allows contractors to view bid packages electronically, sparing them the time and expense of gathering paperwork. GA makes bid packages available on compact disks – complete with all necessary software – for viewing on computers absolutely free.

“It’s a new way of doing business,” says Kip Eder, technical services manager with General Administration. “The purpose is to make wider distribution of bid packages and to do so faster and cheaper. Together, we have created a new industry standard.”

Cheri French, the owner of Builder’s Exchange, says online access to bid packages saves time and money. “A lot of contractors use this program,” French says. “The response has been explosive.”

Contractors, subcontractors and suppliers pay a yearly fee to place private sector projects in Builders Exchange’s members’ area, French says. But if they want to access state projects they need only go to a state website, for which there is no charge.

“It’s good for everybody,” she says.

Builder’s Exchange includes a membership of hundreds of contractors, subcontractors, architects and suppliers from Canada to California and Spokane. They use the online bid packages to gain immediate access to building proposals around the state.

“We’ve even had calls from Australia and Singapore because there’s no other software like this,” French says. “You don’t have to download it. It comes up on your browser. It comes up in 10 seconds on a slow modem. You’re able to look at it immediately and work on it.

“It’s great,” says Mack, who is also a member of Builders Exchange. “You can’t beat it. It’s so fast you don’t have to go anywhere to get all the plans you need. If she doesn’t have something you need there, you’ll have it online in a matter of minutes. It’s real easy.”

Using the online system has helped Mack to get contracts from numerous state departments, ranging from the Department of Social and Health Services to Department of Fish and Wildlife and even the Department of General Administration, which worked with Builders Exchange to set up the state’s version.

The program should be especially beneficial to small contractors, Valandra says. General Administration annually puts out for bid about 300 state public works projects worth approximately $300 million. Ninety percent of the contracts are for $1.5 million or less.

A contractor can see bids with just about any type of personal computer. The program will install free software for viewing. Contractors will also be able to:

Zoom in and print or measure a specific portion of a bid package. For example, a contractor could measure the square footage of carpet necessary for a room and transfer that information to a spreadsheet that calculates costs of a bid.

Check bid packages 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Click on e-mail links to printing shops that can copy bid package documents for distribution to subcontractors and suppliers.

Eder said the program should increase by 50 percent to 300 percent the number of contractors who see bid packages for state public works projects. “That increases the chances for lower bids on the contracts,” he says, “that in turn will save money for the state.”

State agencies that use General Administration to oversee their public works projects will also save money on printing costs for bid packages. Gradually phasing out paper copies of the documents could save the agencies – and taxpayers – $1 million during each two-year cycle of the state budget.

By Kamilla K. McClelland, Business Examiner staff