Valley Voices

Holly Carter: Tear down city’s permitting process to benefit small businesses

Holly Carter
Holly Carter

Fresno is at quite an economic contradiction: We talk enthusiastically about how we’ve turned the corner, and yet we’ve never been further behind our neighboring cities and regions.

Despite the fact that our city is getting more money from the state of California and saving for rainy days ahead, our area’s jobless rate is double the state average. Yes, double.

That is completely unacceptable. As the rest of California pulls away from the station, we’re eating their dust. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When you take a look at the biggest employers in Fresno, it becomes crystal clear that we’re a small-business city. Our largest private employer — Community Medical Centers — employs an estimated 8,000 people (that’s less than 2% of our city’s population).

But we have a problem. Along with state regulations, our city’s planning and permitting process has created unnecessary roadblocks to small-business development and growth.

Two recent stories come to mind which serve as examples of small businesses sinking into the quicksand of regulation at City Hall.

An entrepreneur presented an offer to purchase a blighted, boarded up gas station in arguably one of the worst parts of Fresno. The plan was to remodel it and expand the business to include a gourmet deli. When the application was submitted for approval, the businessman was told that his application would be denied unless he constructed apartments on the top floor of the gas station. That was the end of that.

Another downtown business attempting to expand and improve handicap access to its building was given an ultimatum: To receive approval, it would have to pay for peripheral sidewalk improvements and the repaving of an alleyway it didn’t even own. The expansion never happened.

While our bigger employers have the resources to navigate the bureaucratic mess known as City Hall, small-business owners, like me, don’t have that luxury. In talking with many small-business owners who are navigating through this arduous process, I have come to realize that the rumors of anti-business as usual at City Hall are true.

An entrepreneur who has an idea or a small business owner who wants to grow a business often finds himself or herself working endlessly to navigate through the red tape and maze at City Hall. The cost and time to gain approval within this archaic and ineffective process is staggering. And there is no guarantee of approval.

These policies are destroying Fresno’s growth. Entrepreneurs have little incentive to start a new business and innovate. Instead of investing in our community, many just pack up and take their talents to greener pastures. Existing small businesses may postpone or cancel their plans or worse, give up and close.

Who can blame them?

Unfortunately, the only signal we’re receiving from City Hall is to expect more of the same. On a fundamental level, this stems from the way our city does business. Rather than encourage innovation, we regulate small businesses back to the Stone Age.

If we want to bolster investment and grow Fresno’s economy, we must tear down the brick walls of our permitting process and replace it with an innovative and efficient one. We don’t need evolutionary change, we need revolutionary change!

This means starting over, identifying clear goals and finding other communities that are succeeding. From there, we can create a new business model for City Hall that supports small business start-ups and growth.

Fresno can become a national example of an exploding economy resulting from fundamental changes made by a city that nurtures and supports the growth of small businesses.

Of course, some will worry about major changes like this, namely the bureaucrats whose daily work turns into the fine print on city documents. They have a deep, vested interest in the city’s inefficiency.

City Hall bureaucrats ought to be worried. Without these onerous regulations, back rooms in City Hall would sit empty. Instead, too often they play host to meetings resembling hostage negotiations.

Unfortunately, the hostages are the job creators and innovators. Every hoop they have to jump through is another missed opportunity to add jobs, increase production and grow our local economy.

For Fresno to become a thriving “small-business city,” we need to roll out the red carpet for businesses by empowering owners to do what they do best — create jobs.

This isn’t a people problem, it’s a process problem. A process that no longer serves this community well.

Holly Carter is CEO of Carter & Co. Communications, a Fresno public affairs firm that ​specializes in land-use advocacy and crisis communications.