Austin City Council Business Summit
This document represents the consolidated feedback from three discussion questions
addressed by approximately fifty (50) local small business owners during the Austin City
Council Business Summit on March 23, 2010.
What steps could the City take to better assist small local business owners (SBO) with planning and
Process City permitting processes are cumbersome, disorganized and seemingly
o Agencies don’t coordinate, i.e., Fire Marshalls and Inspectors in
the Health Building are not following the same code. Consistency
of rules is important. We can’t plan if we don’t know the rules. We
need someone who is the “end answer,” who can get everyone
following the same rules. Someone needs to say “the buck stops
here” and be willing to stand behind what they tell a business
owner. The Health Department is the only department able to
o More coordination is needed between city, county and state on
o Streamline the permitting process for businesses.
o The business office could “fast track” permits and could provide
up-front checklists appropriate for each type of business.
o SBO need an advocate (a single point of contact) to “shepherd”
them through the zoning and permitting processes. SBO need an
approval process “Ombudsman.”
o SBO need a City of Austin “expert” like Richard Suttle who knows
how to get very quick City approvals.
o SBO need a New Business Resource Office to provide better-
o There needs to be consistency of regulations, codes, and formats
amongst different permitting departments, including uniform
deadlines. Currently there are competing permit departments
(e.g., health vs. electrical, APD and Right of Way).
o Site plan review requires a half-day, a big time commitment for
SBO. The process is set up to make changes/ corrections
piecemeal rather than all necessary changes at once.
o The City has a staffing shortage.
o Flood plan review needs to be consistent with other processes.
Customer Service Customer service could be improved. Make sure SBO are treated as
o Ensure that a similar process is in place for old and new
businesses and that there is consistent enforcement for all.
Currently there is a perceived or real inequity.
o We are getting different answers from different City employees.
o There is too much inspector autonomy.
o Inspectors need customer service training. Fear of inspectors
could be reduced.
o Establish a single point of contact within the City to assist by
providing information for large-scale marketing /demographics
sharing, traffic counts, etc.
o SBO need a better awareness of existing City resources, e.g., use
Twitter, Facebook to communicate.
Communication Transform City Staff attitudes from “adversary” to “advocate.”
o City offices should update forms. Copies are poor and content
and instructions could be improved.
o A website with video instruction and links to all related
paperwork is needed. Facilitate online submission of documents.
o SBO need faster dissemination of information when new rules will
be implemented, e.g., City Billboard.
o Big development plans need to be better communicated to
everyone, businesses and residents, i.e., road closures have
affected local businesses negatively.
o Conduct impact studies of City Ordinances before they are
o Continue to improve and enhance City’s vendor program. This is
one of the few programs that really works in the City. Keep
making it a better program by getting feedback from the SBO
who use the program.
Other City employees need an appreciation of how difficult it is to start or
expand a business.
o Neighborhood Associations are too powerful. They have veto
o SBO need a sliding scale for green standards. Give SBO credit for
the percentage of standards they can implement.
o Accountability of City Offices, especially inspections, should be by
an outside entity.
o Only large players can develop land because of budget/ resource
o Big business gets special treatment that local businesses don’t
get. There should be consistent rules.
o Establish waivers for small businesses, similar to large businesses,
to even-out the playing field.
o Provide more support for cooperative, locally grown, organic food
o Provide incentives for local incubator kitchens.
o Improve safety struggles with solicitors, panhandlers, shoplifters
that would encourage pedestrians and families to frequent
What steps could the City take to help create a better overall environment for small local
business owners to succeed?
Services ! Develop a mentoring program, matching old and new
businesses in similar industry.
! Create a welcome packet with helpful information for new
! Create a City position to advise self-employed and
independent contractors about healthcare, retirement, etc.
! Create a City Co-op for small business and the self-employed
to “bunch” and form larger groups for health insurance, 401(k),
financing and other benefits that big businesses with large
networks achieve through size (strength in numbers).
! Create a Media Liaison to promote and “accentuate the
positives” in perceived “bad areas of town.” Consider
developing a COP (Cabs on Patrol) Program in these areas as a
way to supplement APD, e.g., cab drivers are “partnered” with
a specific Public Safety Officer and report crimes/issues they
see to their “partner.”
! Simplify the process for getting permits/licenses for expanding
! Establish a seminar/meeting with City Staff on food issues
where the standards are explained and inspectors and SBO
know the expectations.
! Don’t use fear to enforce rules and requirements. Rules should
be transparent and clear and not left up to interpretation
where each city staffer can interpret the rules differently,
creating fear and uncertainty for the business owners.
! Establish an Ombudsman to facilitate solutions to zoning and
! Establish an Advisor Program similar to SCORE for established
Small Business ! Ensure that the Council’s decision to support small business is
Promotion consistent through member changes.
! Ensure a percentage of outsourced projects are awarded to
local small businesses. Austin is one of the nation’s leaders for
“big box” retail.
! Provide SBO protection/lobbying regarding tax increases.
! Promote joint marketing for local small business owners.
! Do more to show genuine “good faith” in sharing sourcing
contracts with local small businesses.
o Early identification and communication of upcoming
sourcing opportunities well before the RFP is ready to
hit the street, e.g., perhaps a January conference to
notify all small businesses of the bid categories for the
o In each category specifically identify the capabilities that
the selected supplier is required to have
o Notify prime or large suppliers that the successful large
business supplier will have to “mentor” and prove that
they have identified and closed any capability gaps of a
local small business so that the large supplier partners in
some way with the small supplier
o The Historically Underutilized Business (HUB)
Coordinators should be more proactive in developing
! Promote local “flavor.”
! Assist with small business development funding.
! Create an incubator for small business.
! Help small businesses grow outside the City limits.
! Help small businesses become great and sustainable thru
innovative marketing to target current and new customers.
! Bridge tough times via streamlined city processes, create loan
programs, updated infrastructure, and assist with more access
to technology, business expansion and diversity.
Provide Incentives ! Help small businesses expand by offering them similar
incentives to what big corporations get. Consider scalable or
! Provide incentives or rebates for recycling. Better address
commercial recycling issues by paying a portion of the recycling
fee for restaurants that are recycling and saving the City money
by not using landfills. Help restaurants that are willing to put in
full dishwashing facilities with cost breaks to minimize the use
of disposable serving utensils.
! Recognize and provide incentives for local business job
creation (create parity between “big box” job creation and
small business job creation). Local jobs are better than “big
Communication ! Provide timely communication and more advance notice on
meetings. An example: mandatory pre-bid meeting notices are
sent Friday for Monday 9:30 A.M. meeting.
! Let small businesses be part of the process and in the
! Bridge the communication gap between Public Works Project
Managers and Purchasing.
! Develop better communication via neighborhood newsletters,
social networking, etc.
! Ensure high-speed Internet access everywhere.
Environmental ! Make parking requirements easier for SBO to meet. The
current parking requirements for small businesses are an
! Minimize the selling of public parking spaces for private valet
! Extend back-in, angle parking in congested areas such as South
Congress and Barton Springs Rd.
! City of Austin should be consistent with the State on
handicapped parking space requirements.
! Better traffic management is needed, especially of the East/
West artery. Talk to small business about upcoming traffic
changes, e.g., Nueces Bike Park.
! Look at parking in terms of “zones” rather than individuals.
Help small businesses look at parking alternatives, e.g., AIBA’s
! Help address security issues in the North Loop, i.e., thefts, car
break-ins. Public Safety cannot respond quickly because of
! Include Public Safety in City planning.
! Better balance public safety needs and business needs. APD
and AFD often trump outright any viable business concerns.
Find the compromise vs. just giving those departments carte
! Not all businesses benefit, and many actually suffer, during
events like SXSW. Consider all small businesses when allowing/
granting large scale street/ area closures.
! Promote more mixed-use neighborhoods.
! Demonstrate more flexibility in zoning and codes.
! Provide a budget for the new Sustainability Officer.
! Design the City for health and a healthy future.
! There should be a balance of power and transparency between
local small business owners and Neighborhood Associations.
Neighborhood Associations are not representative of the
demographic they are supposed to represent in many cases.
There is no appeals process for the small business owner.
! The VMU (Vertical Mixed-Use) process needs to be more small
Funding ! Re-evaluate the allocation of funds for City Services to small
business. Problems include redundancy of City services for
small businesses such as MBE/ WBE and Small Business
! Help SBO access federal and state grants.
! Award some City contracts to for-profit businesses, giving
small businesses priority.
Other ! Stay out of the way of creative business minds. Welcome
ingenuity and advancement.
! Honor the role of small business in Austin’s “uniqueness.”
! Create a local Job Longevity Award, maybe in the form of a
! Let SBO run their businesses without crazy rules and
! Reduce the focus on chain-friendly policies.
! Establish more collaborative efforts and outreach between City
and small businesses.
! Keep a balance between high tech and health and wellness.
! A change of attitude is needed – we collect sales tax for the
City but we are not appreciated and are given the run around.
What are some specific obstacles you have encountered in interacting with the City, and how do
you believe these could be addressed?
Sidewalk/ roadside squatters – smaller - Staff should have thorough knowledge of
vendors want to set up in front of codes that they are responsible for
- Modify antiquated allowances (permit and
enforcement of such businesses)
Vagrancy Establish new laws
Austin is not pedestrian-friendly Establish more crosswalks near small business
sites (cheap, pedestrian-friendly move) and
Lack of parking Fund a community parking plan
Need mass transportation that works
Austin is still resistant to growth Encourage “small pocket” growth
Focus of City Government is downtown Develop better transportation in these areas.
only; other areas get left out Facilitate conversations with UT and the State
City-contracted development lacks diversity Show a concentrated effort to diversify
City Council overreacts in dealings with New City Council Members must go out and
established, regulated small business visit those businesses to learn more about
without full awareness of industry history why history has led them to certain
Inconsistency in inspections processes Inspect us all the same way. Have supervisors
(health especially); SBO get multiple shadow/ audit a number/ % of inspections
Lack of urgency on the part of inspectors/ Service training is needed
Unresponsive, non-accountable staff - Establish on-line payments
(electrical, permitting, health inspectors);
health inspectors are not “food people” - Give rewards for fast permits
- Pay for off-hours or fast permits (like the fire
Relationships between the City and small Teach Staff about benefits of local business
business owners feel adversarial (reference “Small-Mart Revolution” Michael
Code enforcement is a complaint-driven Show of an “attitude of gratitude” -
system, making it easy for an individual to listening, followed by action
Our problems seem to be ignored until the - Create more refined customer-friendly
Press gets involved pathways for City processes (Advocates vs.
- Take action on studies that have been done
rather than conducting redundant studies
- The City Legal Department needs to
benchmark other cities’ best practices
More communication of long-range plans
Communication lead time (bid solicitations) - Give more time to respond, more time to
plan attendance at pre-bid conference
- Provide timetable for City response to
inquiries. There should be both accountability
and predictability that inquiries will be
addressed and when
Accessibility to local goods and services Identify creative ways to use local goods and
(low bid vs. local) services vs. low bid
Limited hours of access to Planning and Expand hours for small business owners to
Development Dept. meet with staff
Neighborhood Associations dictate what - Ensure communication early in the process
businesses must abide by. Associations with businesses and Neighborhood
have too much power. Associations own Associations. Consider single district
the Planning Board. representation, campaign/ influence reform
- Find a compromise on design standards
between neighborhoods and businesses as
well as local small businesses and large chains
when safety requirements can still be met
Planning and Development needs to Have a COA Advocate to guide small business
provide Project Advocates to help with owners thru the process, start to finish
business projects. There should be one
Advocate for the whole project, not a
different Advocate for each department as
that would just add a layer
Lack of support for small business growth Help small business owners understand the
different zoning levels
Provide clarity on the SBDP
City Staff should have thorough knowledge
of the codes they are responsible for
Process needs to be more outcome-oriented
Investigate what “sustainability” means to
the City and for small business. It goes
beyond environment. Expand the concept of
Preferential treatment to large out-of-town Demand accountability from these large
corporations, like Simon corporations. They aren’t good landlords to
small businesses, yet you and we subsidize
If the City gives money to large corporations,
a certain % of space (maybe 10%) needs to
be allotted and affordable for local
Rent control could level the playing field if
City money is involved
Simon is a bad landlord. They force us to use the use their trash collection and
offer no recycling. Simon does not pass on any savings the City gives them.
They don’t negotiate in good faith yet they now own the entire Arboretum.