Starting a new business in St. Paul shouldn’t be like unraveling a Gordian knot.
But too often, leaders acknowledge, figuring out a seemingly endless loop of regulations, statutes, zoning codes and parking requirements — as well as knowing who to go to and when — have twisted the dreams of countless would-be entrepreneurs.
On Wednesday, city officials proclaimed the first year of their Open for Business initiative, designed to create ways to more easily get small businesses up and running in St. Paul, a success.
Judy Lopez, owner of La Costa Mexican Sports Bar and Grill on the city’s West Side, said St. Paul has nailed it.
“It was the easiest process that I could think of,” she said of a streamlined start to the restaurant she opened in May on Cesar Chavez Street. From buying the property to opening in time for Cinco de Mayo — complete with liquor license — took a little more than a year.
“To me, the process was easy because they helped all along the way,” she said, offering special praise for the city’s Safety and Inspections staff.
That was music to the ears of Mayor Chris Coleman and Council Members Rebecca Noecker, Jane Prince and Dai Thao, who a year ago pulled together more than 50 small business owners to find out what the city could do to make their lives easier.
The result is a one-stop shop for businesses seeking to start and grow in St. Paul, and what city officials hope is a more streamlined, better-coordinated process. A pocket guide to starting a business in the city, available in four languages, was released Wednesday.
“It clearly lays out the steps to follow,” Noecker said.
For too long, business owners say, the approval process dragged on and on while they had to wade through health and safety requirements and parking requirements. Sometimes, they’d hear conflicting demands from inspectors in different city departments, said Eric Foster, whose Ward 6 restaurant on Payne Avenue waited years for city approval.
“I think it was very brave for the city to put a bunch of business owners in a room and ask them what they could do better,” said Foster, who waited nearly two years to open while trying to solve parking issues for his East Side eatery. “This is a step in the right direction.”
Other steps the city has taken include making changes to the city charter and ordinances to make it easier to obtain a liquor license, said Ricardo Cervantes, director of Safety and Inspections.
The city also has relaxed its requirements on the number of parking spaces businesses must provide before opening.
The city also has established an online portal and a dedicated phone line to help business owners, as well as people who guide businesses through the approval process. A business license checklist also has been developed, Cervantes said.
Jonathan Sage-Martinson, director of Planning and Economic Development, said St. Paul has boosted its economic development team by 30 percent over the past four years. In addition, the city has made it a goal to add 2,000 technical jobs and has launched a loan program for businesses willing to put down roots in low income neighborhoods.
Lopez said she and her husband only know that the newly streamlined system worked for them — something officials hope to hear often in the future.
“We are proud St. Paul business owners, and we are grateful to the city for helping us realize our dream,” she said.