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Business leaders call for a point person who could facilitate processes

(Somerville Wire) – Somerville entrepreneurs and leaders have expressed concern that there is not currently a liaison in City Hall specifically dedicated to supporting small businesses, and as local stores and restaurants grapple with the course of the pandemic, they have said that there is a true need for one. When businesses try to navigate different processes—whether it be getting a liquor license, expanding a storefront, or setting up outdoor dining—there should be a point person who can facilitate the procedure, without it having to take an extensive amount of time.

Zach Baum, co-owner and developer of Bow Market, said that a liaison would be an important role to have filled, “In my experience, the gap that I see, that a small business liaison could fill, [has] two parts that are very related. One is a guide. Applying for a permit or license in the city is extremely complicated, and it touches many different departments, and they themselves don’t often have as strong connections. For instance, the Economic Development Department reports in one way to the mayor, and the Inspectional Services Department reports in another way. But these two departments that are housed in different buildings and sometimes don’t even know each other that well are extremely important for small businesses … A guide through those systems and a guide through all of the pieces that need to come together for someone to open a restaurant would be extremely impactful.” He added, “The second part, beyond being a guide, is the idea that they could be an advocate for small businesses, most likely within the Inspectional Services Department.”

Baum described a situation where a business had wanted to expand from one small space into two spaces, which would require them to remove a wall, do demolition, install a sink, and complete electrical work. The process took three months, he said, because ISD “is really busy,” and he said that it would have been helpful for someone within the City to be able to “stop by someone’s desk and say, ‘hey, did you get a chance to look at that permit? I think it’s really simple; can you move that along?’”

Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Union Square Main Streets, said that businesses have been struggling for a long time as users of the City’s portal Citizen Serve. Anyone who wants to apply for a permit or license must do so through this tool. She believes that the process can oftentimes be very frustrating, “Back in 2019, after getting input from people at business meetings and other conversations, there was this regular challenge of businesses experiencing very long processing time for sometimes very simple needs and requests … We started to engage the City staff in conversations, saying, for this portal, which is really the lynch pin for getting all this stuff done … is there an individual at City Hall who is shepherding the application or providing a single point of contact for that business who is expanding or growing or opening their business? That’s when we learned that there was not.”

She concluded, “Whereas the Fire Department, Inspectional Services, Licensing and Permitting, and every other City department has a hand in what goes on at Citizen Serve, there’s no one individual who pulls back and does monthly reports and says, ‘how long is it taking for a business to process a request?’ Or, there’s no one individual a small business owner can call and say, ‘can you help me understand where I am in the process?’”

Mayoral candidate and City Councilor Katjana Ballantyne said that if elected, she would push to have a small business liaison brought to City Hall. She described other ways that she would support local entrepreneurs, as well, “[I would think about] forgiving fees for licensing, permitting and taxing, extending or enhancing our relief funds for flexible or forgivable financing options, or if there are additional funds that we could provide technical help with the Small Business Association and other forms of federal and state relief, creating a small business overlay district along the commercial corridors to allow for more entrepreneurial opportunities, establish[ing] an immigrant entrepreneur program with the Economic Development Department, to create and retain small businesses, coaching, business development, technical assistance—that kind of stuff.”

Director of Economic Development Tom Galligani said that while the conditions that small businesses are under have improved since last year, the pandemic still has posed significant challenges, “We’re in a situation where we’re not dealing with the business closures and restrictions that we had in place last year at this time. However, we absolutely recognize that a lot of our businesses are still struggling and trying to recover from COVID. We’re hearing it from our restaurants, where people are not coming out to the same extent that they had been two years ago, before COVID. Even now, people are still very nervous, and it seems like [from] the reports I’m getting anecdotally that people are much more comfortable to go outdoors and less comfortable to go indoors. Of course, we’re getting into a colder season now, so that’s on the mind of a lot of our restaurants.”

Opposing mayoral candidate and City Councilor Will Mbah’s campaign manager JC Noble said that Mbah was too busy to comment.

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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