Minneapolis should eliminate outdated business licenses, shorten permitting processes and give code inspectors better customer service training, according to a new city report prepared after months of meetings with business owners.
The 19-page "Business Made Simple" plan was the result of a promise Mayor Betsy Hodges made after she took office last year — and one of the topics that got significant attention in the State of the City speech she delivered last week. The mayor pledged to develop a list of recommendations to make it easier to do business in Minneapolis after fielding complaints from many business owners who reported that their projects had been delayed by complicated regulations or mishandled by city staff.
The plan, developed by the offices of the mayor and City Attorney Susan Segal, includes some specific ordinance changes that will require approval of the City Council. (Among them: removing licenses for jukeboxes, milk delivery trucks, ice peddlers and nut vending machines.) Others, such as recommendations for new staff members, would likely require adjustments to the city's budget. Some procedural changes could be implemented more quickly and without the council's approval.
"I would think within the next year that we could have a lot of these things in motion, if not implemented already," Segal said.
The proposal suggests shortening the number of requirements for background checks on liquor license applications, relaxing some parking requirements and changing the way the city polices noise levels in entertainment venues. It proposes creating a new "small-business facilitator/navigator" position, which would provide a specific person for small-business owners to contact before they submit any plans.
Among the other suggestions:
• Improving language translation services for business owners with limited English skills.
• Developing a guide that outlines specific steps business owners should consider or need to follow before building or getting a license.
• Combining some types of inspections to help speed the permitting process; with new software, the city would be able to run simultaneous reviews for multiple departments.
• Simplifying regulations for properties in historic districts.
Business owners who had offered their suggestions to Hodges and Segal said they are optimistic the changes will make their work easier, particularly if code enforcement officers are able to become more flexible in their dealings with businesses.
Harvey McLain, the owner of Turtle Bread Co., a bakery with three Minneapolis locations, filled a three-ring binder with ideas and comments about his sometimes-frustrating dealings with city inspectors. McLain said his shops get inspected 15 to 20 times a year, sometimes for reasons that are unclear or turn out to be unnecessary.
But after reading the new plan, McClain said he believes those visits will drop off significantly. He said he was pleased to see many of his recommendations included in the report. Now, he said, the city's challenge will be in changing the attitudes of some city staff that work in code enforcement. He said inspectors should be more willing to suggest alternatives to business' plans that run outside of the rules, rather than cutting them off right away.
"There's this huge, big building boom going on," he said. "And they should have something in the city bureaucracy that doesn't just say: 'no, no, no,' but encourages development or remodeling in a way that keeps the unique character, as opposed to making everything look like Eagan."
James Brown, owner of Forage Modern Workshop and Brownsmith Restoration, said he's been working on plans for a restaurant across from his business on Lake Street. But he said it has often taken up to two weeks to get a reply after submitting paperwork and the process has dragged on for six months — when the process could have taken just a few weeks.
Brown doesn't have many complaints about the city's permitting process but said the process gets far too specific without a clear reason. His restaurant plans, for example, had to include information about specific seasonal plants he'd put around the building — a detail the city is unlikely to have time to enforce later on.
As the city launches its effort to eliminate some of those steps, Brown said he hopes it doesn't add more staff to do it.
With less involvement, he said, "you'd have the same end result — and less cost on my end, and the city's end."
Hodges said Tuesday that she is sympathetic to business owners' concerns. She gave the example of a business owner being directed to install a grease trap, only to have a separate city inspector say months later that it should have been located in a different spot.
Eliminating those headaches, she said, will go a long way toward changing the way inspectors think about business owners and vice versa.
While it's important to keep the city safe, the mayor said, sometimes the city enterprise needs to get out of the way.
"It's in the city's interest that people invest in our city," she said.