This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on June 7, 2018.
The good news for those that care about small businesses is that they poll very high in candidate stump speeches. That’s likely because Alexandria’s economy and character are so dependent on them.
Small businesses comprise about 90 percent of total businesses and contribute most of the city’s commercial tax base. It’s not just their job creation and fiscal clout, those independent businesses that fit so nicely into our historic and quaint spaces also help form Alexandria’s distinctive sense of place.
The charm and proximity of our commercial districts are blessings, but they also pose unique challenges for both businesses and nearby residents. Restrictions have been imposed to preserve the character and history that distinguishes Alexandria. Any property owner, resident or retailer can tell you that making changes or adding to a building can be challenging, expensive and time consuming. But residents and businesses alike take pride in preserving the aesthetic that makes this such a great place to live, work and visit.
At election time, we often hear about the need to reduce burdens for small businesses. Almost everybody wants to help small businesses and agrees in theory with reducing burdens on them.
In every survey of small business owners, regulatory compliance ranks at or near the top of the list of their greatest hinderances. Small business owners struggle to understand and respond to these requirements and doing so unfortunately takes their focus away from their products, services and competition – the core of their operations.
Red tape and delays have particularly harmful consequences for owners at the very fragile startup stage, when their resources are thin. Entrepreneurs desperately need to get their doors open to begin collecting revenue. Startup delays due to regulatory processes can be expensive, and a weak cash flow at the start may lead to failure down the road.
City staff recently identified zoning ordinances that were costly and time-intensive for small businesses. They focused on ordinances that seem excessive based on their limited community impact. These ordinances were typically put into place with good intent and without recognition of the unintended consequences for small business owners. Proposed changes also aligned with business trends that were not anticipated when the ordinances were originally written.
The almost universal agreement to reduce burdens for small businesses somehow ceased when specific regulation revisions were proposed. Some citizens and citizen groups perceived that the floodgates would open and their protections would be eroded.
The integrated nature of our community often brings together stakeholders with differing viewpoints, from residents who fear that nearby businesses will bring noise and traffic, to proprietors who are doing everything possible to help their businesses thrive. It takes smart and decisive leadership to understand the complexities of cutting red tape while engaging with stakeholders to carefully craft meaningful responses.
Our economy and quality of life are enhanced by the success of small businesses, so it’s worth considering whether we are all doing our very best to welcome and support them.