Forum aims to help small businesses grow
Published: Monday, May 13, 2013 at 10:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 13, 2013 at 10:47 p.m.
Collin Austin said his 6-year-old business, New Scooters 4 Less, is ready to expand but “there's one thing keeping my company from growing right now, and that's this city.”
Austin was one of six business owners, whose companies are at different stages of development, to speak at a forum Monday evening about how Gainesville city government can better foster small-business growth.
The forum, “Growing Your Small Business in Gainesville: A Conversation with City Leaders,” was hosted by Mayor-elect Ed Braddy and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce at the Senior Recreation Center. About 130 people attended, including five of the seven current city commissioners, more than a dozen city staffers and numerous business people.
Austin said he had the perfect location picked out near the Sweetbay Supermarket, but was told scooter sales are only allowed in areas zoned for business automotive instead of the urban mixed-use zoning in the area he was looking at, even though an auto parts store that sells oil and changes auto parts is allowed there.
The business automotive area on North Main Street is too far from campus, and the only properties available are dirty, old mechanics shops or 10,000-square-foot car dealerships that he can't afford, Austin said.
“We are thinking about picking up and leaving Gainesville,” he said.
In later remarks, City Manager Russ Blackburn said he had some good news for Austin: Thursday's City Commission agenda includes an amendment to the urban mixed-use zoning to allow scooter sales.
But a common theme during the nearly two-hour meeting was that city government too often tells small businesses what they can't do instead of how they can help them start or grow a business.
Seth Lane, of Front Street Commercial Real Estate Group, said he has a client that wants to buy a blighted vacant building on Northwest 13th Street but the city code would require a complete redevelopment based on a vision of what the city wants the area to look like.
“Instead of a higher and better use now we are insisting that we do something that may be more appropriate 20, 30 years down the road when the market allows it,” he said. “I'd rather have a viable business in that building now than a blighted building until the market catches up to code.”
After attendees broke into smaller discussion groups, Annie Orlando, of Atlas Screen Printing, said her group talked about new CVS stores being forced to build a second story on top of the pharmacies.
“We're supposed to be doing high density and now we're seeing these places are empty when we don't have the demand for all that yet,” she said.
Greg Johnson has owned Quality Cleaners for 30 years and said the relationship between city government and the business community has never been better after working together on the Chamber's Innovation Gainesville initiative. However, he said he hears “horror stories” from friends in different businesses about how they are treated by building inspectors during the permitting process.
“It's not going to be fixed until the actual inspectors are held accountable,” he said.
Several speakers recommended that the city establish a system to take feedback on how people are treated by city staff.
John Pastore, of Crime Prevention Security Systems, said he has worked with a lot of good people at the city but “there are obstructionists when you go to do something.”
“Let's change the culture of the workers at the city,” he said. “It needs to come from the top, from the commissioners.”
In closing comments, Commissioner Lauren Poe said Blackburn started customer service training for all city and Gainesville Regional Utilities employees within the past year.
“The city manager has heard that message. He's working on that. What we now need to know from you is is it working?” he said.
Poe also pointed out that former planning and development director Erik Bredfeldt has been moved into the newly created economic development and innovation director position to serve as an ombudsman for businesses to help them through the city permitting process.
In addition to Poe, Commissioners Susan Bottcher, Todd Chase, Yvonne Hinson-Rawls and Randy Wells attended. Mayor Craig Lowe and Commissioner Thomas Hawkins were absent.
Braddy said he called for the forum to “double down” on what the city does right and fix what needs to be changed.
Chamber President Tim Giuliani said that in the same collaborative spirit that produced Innovation Gainesville they want to provide economic opportunities “in every corner of this community.”
Kamal Latham, vice president of public policy for the Chamber, said the Chamber will put together a report for city commissioners and hopes to continue future dialogue about the issues. He invited people to email more comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.