Spokane Journal of Business

City works to smooth path for business

Seven In Eleven program involves goals to smooth permit, approval processes

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City works to smooth path for business
-- Photo by Treva Lind
The city of Spokane's 7 in 11 program includes a road construction survival kit for businesses affected by street work, such as those pictured here along Second Avenue, east of downtown Spokane.

The city of Spokane has launched a new program, called Seven in Eleven, to improve the small-business climate within the city.

Two early focuses of the program, named for the seven goals the initiative sets out to accomplish in 2011, involve offering tips for doing business during road repair and streamlining steps required in the change-of-use process.

The city has hired former Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mike Edwards as a consultant specifically tasked with addressing shortcomings in change of use.

When a company wants to change substantially the nature of business conducted at a specific location, the city requires change-of-use approval. For example, a restaurant company that wants to convert a home into a new eatery would need such approval. A daycare that wants to increase substantially the number of children it takes in would need to go through the same process.

Small business leaders who were surveyed by the city most often cited the change-of-use process as needing improvement, says Teresa Brum, the city's business and development director.

"It's a process that involves multiple departments in the city," Brum says. "It's been identified by our small-business customers as one of the city's biggest process impediments."

The Seven in Eleven steps—with focuses ranging from how an entrepreneur gets a building permit to how he or she better accesses small business resources—has the city re-examining its interactions more from the business person's perspective, she adds.

"Whether they're applying for a business license or permit or an incentive, a business owner is walking through City Hall and talking to different departments. We found that it can be confusing, especially for an entrepreneur just starting a business. There weren't always coordinated answers, (and) we found we could provide more information upfront," Brum says.

Edwards, who returned to Spokane after a stint with a Pittsburgh downtown partnership, also says the program follows Spokane Mayor Mary Verner's initiative to increase support for small businesses as the city emerges from recession. Edwards plans to help draft ordinances for new change-of-use policies, so that city council members can consider them by June or July.

Although he has just started researching actual numbers, he says the city has seen a definite uptick in license requests as people recovering from a bad economy set out to start small businesses.

"This change of use is a bigger issue because there are more people going into business for themselves," Edwards says.

When someone wants to start a new business, he says, they don't always recognize that they are changing the use of a property, so one goal is providing entrepreneurs with an upfront checklist.

"The idea is to make sure as many people as possible who come into the city to start a business, that before they get the bank loan, before they start work, before they get too far down the road, they recognize the steps and potential costs," Edwards says, "so that their $30,000 idea doesn't turn into a $100,000 idea."

Edwards started working under contract for the city Feb. 21. He is being paid $55,000 for the six-month project. The city is funding the position with money that had been earmarked for an economic development division director position, which is currently vacant.

Overall, seven goals are expected to be completed this year. They are:

•Offer a program called Open for Business to help companies survive road construction, with materials available at www.DevelopingSpokane.org. Such materials offer strategies to prepare for street construction, suggestions for creative promotions, and post-repair ideas to get back on track.

•Create a checklist for the permit process, including expected timelines and cost.

•Improve the Small Business Communication Network, a business owners' forum to promote access to the city's development incentive programs and resource partners, such as Spokane's Small Business Development Center. As part of this, the city hopes to stimulate small business owners' feedback.

•Streamline the change-of-use process.

•Adopt new city measurement tools for the permit process.

•Improve online access for business licenses and permits.

•Form a public-private entrepreneurs' coalition and a plan to improve dialogue with the area's lending community to give better perspective on small-business needs—from the point of getting a loan to opening a business.

City leaders and small business advocates selected the seven steps from more than 22 individual ideas submitted by small business owners and managers. Greater Spokane Incorporated's Small Business Council and Public Policy Council assisted in selecting the focus.

Greg Stewart, founder and owner of the accounting firm Stewart & Associates PS, is chairman of GSI's Small Business Council. He says an overall priority is to make it easier to do business in Spokane.

"There are some hindrances that make it difficult to start a business," he says. "It was a cumbersome process to get a permit or change of use, and some of that is from the business owner not understanding the process and being intimidated by it."

He adds, "Some of the Seven in Eleven steps are addressing those communication issues. It gives the small business owner a voice so the city understands what some of the issues are."

Ross Kelley, managing principal in the Spokane office of the consulting firm HDR Engineering Inc., also is a Small Business Council member who says that its members and city staff have worked together to identify priorities, including the checklist for new business owners.

"Many of these small business people don't have an attorney or a consultant to help lead them through the processs," he adds. "They just have an idea."

Treva Lind
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