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Biz alliance wants more help for small firms

Thursday, August 21, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

The Austin Independent Business Alliance is both optimistic and frustrated about the City of Austin’s current efforts to assist small local businesses. The discussion took place at last week’s Council Audit and Finance Committee meeting, following a progress report on two 2012 Council resolutions intended to work with small businesses by enhancing the city’s Small Business Development Program.

“I have no qualms whatsoever with what the Economic Department and the Small Business Development Program have done,” Alliance Executive Director Rebecca Melançon told the committee. “My concern with these two resolutions is where did these things go from their original intent to where they landed?”

The first resolution, passed in April 2012, directed City Manager Marc Ott to work with the Business Alliance and other stakeholders to investigate ways to strengthen the Economic Development Department’s Small Business Development Program and report the findings to Council. The product of this analysis, called the GrowLocal report, included several recommendations for Council to consider. The second resolution, passed in December 2012, directed Ott to focus on and implement four selected items from the GrowLocal report.

Small Business Development Program Manager Vicky Valdez told the committee her team has made progress toward meeting the requirements of the resolutions. Its achievements, she said, include planning and holding a Small Local Business Summit last year, creating a Family Business Loan Program, developing an online class designed to help small-business owners understand the city’s planning and development process, publishing an incentives guide for small businesses and beginning planning for local business districts and shop local campaigns.

Melançon’s presentation focused on comparing the progress of the two resolutions with the seven directives of the Local Business Manifesto, which the Business Alliance launched and is referred to in the April 2012 resolution. Her conclusion was that the resolutions, so far, have not achieved the goals of the directives.

“A lot of the things that were created under the name of these resolutions are terrific programs, and I’m not here to say otherwise,” Melançon said. “But many of them are not what was intended with the original resolutions.”

When asked by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole to prioritize the Business Alliance’s goals, Melançon stated that its first request is for the city to create and fill the position of a local business ombudsman.

The ombudsman, as described in the first directive of the manifesto, would have the authority to ensure a smooth and timely permit and regulatory process, Melançon said, adding that the December 2012 resolution makes no mention of the ombudsman position.

If the city could take one basic step to help small local businesses, Melançon went on to explain, it would be to improve the permit application process.

She referred to the Planning and Development Review Department, which is responsible for issuing permits, as a major point of frustration. “It’s a nightmare — it’s a broken department,” she said. “We call it the local business prevention department, and I want to change that.”

Melançon clarified that the Business Alliance has been working with the department and that the problem is not the fault of anyone in particular. “There’s not one person, there’s not even one department. I can’t sit here and say here’s a person who’s just out to get local business, because there’s not,” she said. “It’s the traveling of these things from point A to what ends up at point Z.”

Melançon also noted that, despite the Business Alliance’s frustrations, it is optimistic about the future of the city’s efforts. “I’m happy to say that I think Code Compliance is about to do some pretty magnificent things in improving the relationship with business in Austin.”

When asked by Council Member Bill Spelman to elaborate on this development, Melançon said the Business Alliance had met with Code Compliance representatives to determine ways to help business owners achieve their goals while still adhering to laws and regulations.

Melançon said the Business Alliance was excited about developments like these and expressed optimism about the future. Valdez noted the Small Business Development Program would be working with the Business Alliance to prepare for and hold its next annual Small Local Business Summit on Oct. 7.



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