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Business Summit Participant Feedback Report


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Recommendations from participants of the March 2010 Small Business Summit as assembled by staff of Austin City Counci and presented to Council in June

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Business Summit Participant Feedback Report

  1. 1. Austin City Council Business Summit Participant Responses 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 development? Process City permitting processes are cumbersome, disorganized and seemingly random. 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 communicate expectations. o More coordination is needed between city, county and state on permitting processes. 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- coordinated guidance. 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. 1
  2. 2. Customer Service Customer service could be improved. Make sure SBO are treated as valued customers. 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. 2
  3. 3. 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 passed. 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 power. 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 constraints. 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 distribution. o Provide incentives for local incubator kitchens. o Improve safety struggles with solicitors, panhandlers, shoplifters that would encourage pedestrians and families to frequent downtown. 3
  4. 4. 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 small businesses. ! 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 small businesses. ! 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 permitting issues. ! Establish an Advisor Program similar to SCORE for established businesses. 4
  5. 5. 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 year 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 small businesses ! 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. 5
  6. 6. Provide Incentives ! Help small businesses expand by offering them similar incentives to what big corporations get. Consider scalable or percentage incentives. ! 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 box” jobs. 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 communication loop. ! 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 obstacle. ! Minimize the selling of public parking spaces for private valet parking. ! 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 IBIZ plans. ! Help address security issues in the North Loop, i.e., thefts, car break-ins. Public Safety cannot respond quickly because of traffic congestion. 6
  7. 7. ! 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 blanche. ! 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 business friendly. 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 programs. ! 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 rebate. ! Let SBO run their businesses without crazy rules and requirements. ! 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. 7
  8. 8. What are some specific obstacles you have encountered in interacting with the City, and how do you believe these could be addressed? Obstacles Solutions Sidewalk/ roadside squatters – smaller - Staff should have thorough knowledge of vendors want to set up in front of codes that they are responsible for businesses enforcing - 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 pedestrian bridges 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 operational choices Inconsistency in inspections processes Inspect us all the same way. Have supervisors (health especially); SBO get multiple shadow/ audit a number/ % of inspections answers Lack of urgency on the part of inspectors/ Service training is needed permitting department 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 department) 8
  9. 9. Relationships between the City and small Teach Staff about benefits of local business business owners feel adversarial (reference “Small-Mart Revolution” Michael Shuman) Code enforcement is a complaint-driven Show of an “attitude of gratitude” - system, making it easy for an individual to listening, followed by action wreck havoc Our problems seem to be ignored until the - Create more refined customer-friendly Press gets involved pathways for City processes (Advocates vs. Adversaries) - 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 9
  10. 10. 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 enforcing 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 “Sustainability Officer” 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 them If the City gives money to large corporations, a certain % of space (maybe 10%) needs to be allotted and affordable for local businesses Rent control could level the playing field if City money is involved Additional comment: 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. 10