City tries to clear path for small biz


When Carlos Espinal planned to bring the flavors and cuisine of Lima, Peru to Mill Basin, Brooklyn, he had high hopes of opening his new restaurant by the end of 2013.

But instead, he opened Lima in June 2014, 15 months after the project started, an elongated start-up because of contract permits, regulations, incomplete inspections and unexpected violations. Espinal thought he could turn to the city Department of Small Business Services and the Department of Buildings for help and guidance, yet he found himself completing the project alone.

“I was frustrated with the city, I was frustrated with the architect, I was frustrated at the landlord,” Espinal said. “Crazy is not the word.”

According to a report by the Mayor’s Office of Operations and Department of Small Business Services, New York City has over 6,000 laws and requirements and over 250 business-related permits that entrepreneurs must abide by. With 98 percent of all business classified as small businesses, city government does not deny that the journey to launch a small business here is more than likely a long and strenuous one.

As a result, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Small Business First in July 2014, an initiative to help hundreds of thousands of small businesses in New York City open and strive in the private sector successfully. However, there is doubt that an effort to streamline city agencies, in order to benefit small businesses, will be as helpful as projected in the end.

The $27 million investment through fiscal year 2019 is aimed at helping entrepreneurs comply with permits and regulations both in person and online, with consolidated access in order to streamline the process of getting businesses of all types up and running.

In conjunction with over 15 city agencies, the Small Business First executive report highlighted 30 recommendations under such headings as “provide clear information with coordinated services and support,” “help businesses understand and comply with city regulations,” “reduce the burden imposed by complex regulations and fines,” and “ensure equal access for all business owners.” City officials, advocates, and small business owners provided the recommendations in order to coordinate what small businesses need the most.

The plan launched an Online Business Portal, where business owners can obtain city documents and checklists of regulations by business type and industry. The portal can be personalized to the owner to increase knowledge of specific requirements to avoid violations. The portal can be obtained from a computer or mobile device.

The Small Business First initiative also announced a One-Stop Business Center to those who prefer not to complete criteria online through the Online Business Portal. Rather business owners will potentially be able to consult with a client manager on a one-on-one basis. The aim is to get help with scheduling inspections, resolving violations and further paperwork or questions. The report says that the availability of the center will rely on its success in initial stages.

City officials hope to reduce the time required for business to open or work by 50 percent and reduce repeat violations by businesses by 10 percent.

Espinal is apprehensive about this new action, recalling that the city didn’t seem to be on his side as he opened Lima.

“If the city wants to help the small businesses by expediting the process of getting their permits, by expediting the buildings department to come faster to see approvals and give final inspection, I really don’t know if it’s possible,” he said.

It may be hard for the city to change, according to John Frankenstein, a business professor at Brooklyn College. He finds that the city bureaucracy may have too many interests getting in the way of prioritizing this initiative for small businesses. Big cities across the globe seem to face this challenge, he said.

“A lot of this has to do with streamlining government and de Blasio has to make sure that that happens and it can’t be the same old bureaucratic mess,” Frankenstein said. “I hope it will be successful, but can it be successful? I think there are a lot of vested interests in the bureaucracy that’s simply getting in the way.”

Espinal began construction in March 2013 with an estimation that his Peruvian restaurant would open in three months, but he gave the project nine months to complete in hopes of avoiding disappointment.

The space previously housed a flower store, but was violation-ridden–unbeknown to him. When throwing away garbage, Espinal was accused of working without a permit, initially halting work for three months with no ability to pull and apply for future permits.

With construction close to completion, Espinal added, scheduled inspections with the Department of Buildings were cancelled and delayed numerous times. Even with an architect to help with the process, he eventually found himself at a loss both emotionally and financially. His staff was already hired and prepared for opening, giving prior jobs two weeks’ or even a month’s notice.

“At the end I had to do everything myself because I couldn’t get help from my architect, he didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I went myself [to the Buildings Department] and said ‘I need to open up this restaurant because it’s costing too much money.’”

Frankenstein added that these types of services are available and successful in other parts of the country, including Arizona, which streamlines different city departments, using technology to process different needs and requirements.

“It could be resolved much faster with more efficient e-government, which is to say that a lot of this stuff in other parts of the country- like to say Arizona for instance- a lot of these things are taken care of electronically,” he said. “And so these government bureaus and permissions and permits and things like this, the whole process is considerably streamlined.”

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