By Caitlyn Finnegan
Business professionals in Gainesville are ready to see some changes in the city’s attitude towards fostering the small business community.
The resounding theme throughout the “Growing Your Small Business in Gainesville: A Conversation with City Leaders” forum Monday night at the Alachua County Senior Recreation Center was the need to turn “can’ts into cans.”
The Gainesville City Commission and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce collaborated on hosting the event, one of the first orders of business spurred by Mayor-elect Ed Braddy.
A solid showing of more than 130 local business professionals and stakeholders attended to support the movement towards a more responsive and clear business process.
Six business owners shared their experiences with city government during the first half of the meeting, including the man whose conversation with Mayor-elect Braddy during campaign season inspired the event; My In-Home Care founder Matt Bowman.
“I started my business, like many of you did, at the kitchen table,” Bowman said. “We need more resources to help get these home-based businesses started. You can’t forget the little guy.”
Each in their own stage of the business lifecycle, the six speakers shared stories of “roadblocks” they faced when dealing with the city. From the lack of micro-funding opportunities to the inconsistency of answers from different city employees, the speakers argued that the city should focus on strengthening the small business community, not just the “big business” being brought into Innovation Square.
“There’s one thing keeping my company from growing right now, and that’s this city,” said Collin Austin, founder of New Scooters 4 Less.
Austin’s company is dealing with the limitations of urban mixed-use zoning, an obstacle in his business plan to reach more people by locating his business in a shopping center. After spending months trying to find a new location that would allow him to expand his showroom without being regulated to an old car sales lot or mechanic shop, he considered moving out of Gainesville. City Manager Russ Blackburn later commented that there is a bill to end such zoning limitations on the agenda for Thursday night’s City Commission meeting.
Another concern was the poor customer service faced by business owners trying to receive permits. Greg Johnson, an owner who has spent 30 years expanding his company Quality Cleaners to eight locations, said that the reputation for poor service is “some of the worst PR that the city gets.”
“The problem is not going to be fixed until inspectors are held accountable,” Johnson said.
Some of the solutions offered during the discussion included offering performance surveys for city employees who have direct contact with business owners, as well as extending the city workweek to five days instead of four.
Once the speakers finished, Chamber representatives and officials including city commissioners, county commissioners and State Representative Keith Perry spread out among the breakout groups to meet one-on-one with attendees. Business owners aired their grievances, ready for their voice to be heard on topics ranging from high property taxes to favoritism in permit selection.
At the end of the hour-long session, Mayor-elect Braddy said the city would continue to work towards changing the impediments keeping business owners from conducting business in a “time- and cost-effective way.”
“There is some low hanging fruit we could work on immediately; but other things are going to take some political muscle, and I am going to ask that (business owners) stay engaged when that happens,” Braddy said.
Erik Bradfeldt, the new economic development and innovation director who will serve as an ombudsman for businesses going through the city permitting process, also attended the meeting. As the former planning and development director for the city, Bredfeldt said he is used to working in a more regulated environment with a demand for transparency and consistency, characteristics he hopes to continue to build into the local business process.
“My whole role is to be a facilitator, and hopefully I can lead by example,” Bredfeldt said.
Feedback from the event will be collected and compiled into a report for city commissioners to review as they make decisions on important policies affecting the business community, said Kamal Latham, vice president of public policy for the Chamber.
“It only takes one person sometimes to start a movement, so we encourage you to give your feedback,” Latham said.
For people unable to attend the event, Latham offered to continue to collect input through the Chamber’s email, firstname.lastname@example.org.