The Red Tape Red Carpet Task Force initiative is continuing as planned and on Tuesday, April 9, we held the second of four focus groups with City of Burlington Staff and Partner Organizations.
The purpose of this session was to have stakeholders and contributors around the table who impact the processes and approvals business owners face when looking to start up, grow, or relocate within Burlington.
Attendees from the City of Burlington included: Mayor Marianne Meed Ward and Councillor Kelvin Galbraith (who is also a business owner and member of the Aldershot BIA), who are co-chairs of this initiative; as well as Tim Commisso, Interim City Manager; Heather MacDonald, Director of City Building; Sue Connor, Director of Burlington Transit; Joan Ford, Director of Finance; Mary Lou Tanner, Deputy City Manager; Ron Steiginga, Manager of Realty Services; Rosalind Minaji, Coordinator of Development Review; Nick Anastasopoulos, Chief Building Official; and Allan Magi, Executive Director of Capital Works.
From the City’s partner organizations, who are often involved with permits, approvals, and other issues related to business set-up and expansion, were: Anita Cassidy, of the Burlington Economic Development Corporation; Gerry Smallegange, President and CEO of Burlington Hydro; John Davidson, Director of Economic Development at Halton Region; and Brian Dean, President of the Burlington Downtown Business Association. A few invitees, such as Morgan Lawrence of the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO), were unable to attend.
(IF YOU WANT TO FIND OUT SOME OF THE MOST COMMON ISSUES BUSINESSES HAVE IDENTIFIED TO THE FOCUS GROUP MEMBERS, HEAD DOWN TO – COMMON ISSUES)
These groups all deal directly with business owners as well as each other. Bringing them together in one room was very productive and allowed the surfacing of common themes and shared issues in an environment that was conducive to positive thinking and ideation.
While many attendees were familiar with one another, they were asked to start the session off by stating their title, the number of years they’ve been in their role/industry, and explain what THEY thought their personal role was in making it easy for businesses to start/grow/thrive in Burlington. The conversation was transparent and authentic, with great dialogue around the ways each person and their teams were empowered to impact local businesses.
The Mayor went first and explained that she sees her role as listening to feedback from business owners, identifying the challenges and what needs to change, advocating for that change, and partnering with the right people and organizations to implement the solutions.
Ron Steiginga’s 25+ years in real estate management with the City of Burlington has let him get to know most of the developers and builders in town, build relationships, and stay aware of what is available for sale. He is involved with fees (such as park dedication fees), and the purchase of parks, firehall sites, etc., and sees his role as keeping stakeholders aware and informed of those issues and availabilities.
Rosalind Minaji has been in planning and development for 30 years, and a big part of her role is to help walk people through the application process, as well as ensure the city has sufficient and identified employment areas, as well as affordable housing.
Joan Ford has been in finance for 30 years and sees her role as ensuring fees and taxes for business owners are collected in a fair and equitable way, and being transparent to businesses on these items.
Mary Lou Tanner has been at the City for 3 years and in her Interim City Manager role for 18 months. She sees her role as creating a culture of customer service for business owners who come to the City with questions and looking for guidance with what can often feel like an overwhelming or complicated journey. She wants to ensure people feel welcome, get the answers they need, and help make processes easier and better understood.
Sue Connor is 2 years into her role, with 30 years overall in the transit industry. She knows she needs to help move employees around so that businesses have access to the people they need to make their business run.
From the BEDC, Anita Cassidy’s focus is in helping create a competitive advantage here in Burlington so that businesses want to locate here, helping them find talent or space, as well as advocating for what businesses need with partner organizations like the MTO or the Region.
John Davidson has been at Halton Region for 13 years and mentioned the Small Business Centre that is run out of there as a good resource for business owners starting out. He sees his role as ensuring businesses don’t get stalled in their approvals/permits journey and working behind the scenes with partners like the City of Burlington and others to remove obstacles.
Tim Commisso, in the industry for 35 years now, sees one of his priorities as helping implement more of a 1:1 personal touch for smaller businesses who don’t necessarily have the experts and resources of larger firms and developers to help navigate the system. He also expressed interest in seeking out technology that makes the process easier and more trackable, and ensuring city staff have the skills and customer service attitude to make these experiences better for businesses.
Brian Dean has been at the Burlington Downtown Business Association for 18 years now and sees his role as retaining and attracting businesses to this area of our City. He works to help acclimatize new businesses to the neighborhood, give them market data to help with their business planning, and keep them engaged with their community.
Keith Hoey, outgoing President of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce (15 years now), focuses on: a) connecting people through networking and events; b) educating businesses on things like managing their books or understanding government decisions that will impact them; c) advocating with all levels of government on behalf of business owners; and d) providing discounts and savings to help businesses save money.
Allan Magi, 27 years into his tenure, oversees the building of parks, roads, and other infrastructure that needs to be in place to support the businesses in our city. He helps oversee development charges, and advocates with partner agencies to streamline and find common ground to help move things along.
Nick Anastasopoulos has been with the City for 3 years, and 20+ years in the industry. He sees his role as helping get businesses “in the ground” and up and running. He looks for efficiencies and overlap to help streamline processes, and is focused on finding ways to connect partner agencies to work faster together for businesses.
Gerry Smallegange at Hydro gets involved with new businesses and expansions as many businesses have unique or additional hydro needs when they relocate/start up here in Burlington. He sees his role as finding ways to partner with businesses before they sign leases or purchase property to advise them on what is possible and consider meetings or site visits to better equip businesses with the information they need before they sign on the dotted line, so they can avoid zoning or other problems down the road.
Kelvin Galbraith is new to his role as Councillor but has been a small business owner for 21 years now in Aldershot, and is a member of the Aldershot BIA. He sees his role as similar to the Mayor’s: see the issues and help solve the problems.
Heather MacDonald is newer to the City of Burlington in her role, but has many years of experience including years at Metrolinx, the City of Brampton and the City of Mississauga. She and her team (including Rosalind and Nick) are tasked with ensuring we have buildings and businesses that are safe and of high quality, and helping people through the development process. She wants to impact the level of education and communication outward to business owners to avoid people feeling surprised down the line and ensure they have the right information – and all of it – as early in the process as possible.
COMMON ISSUES / POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS
The room was asked to identify the most common issues they hear from business owners and there was a lot of commonality: zoning, permits, signs and approvals were all identified as taking too long, requiring too many stakeholders’ involvement, and being challenging to navigate (especially for first-timers).
Everyone agreed that working towards more of a “One-Stop Shop” would provide a better customer service experience and staffing that shop with subject matter experts who can guide people through the process, set realistic expectations, and provide all the information up front would be ideal. Having people to triage applications so they require fewer revisions would also be helpful in reducing timelines and workload on both sides of the table.
The room noted that more could be done to get information online and searchable, letting business owners self-serve and self-educate when possible, and do things after hours when appropriate. Marketing, education, and information sharing was a common theme, whether through campaigns to educate prospective business owners on avoiding common pitfalls in the application process, or having monthly open-house sessions where business owners can come meet with experts like those in the focus group room to get free advice to help them along the way.
Looking at technology systems and platforms that enable barcoding/tracking of applications would improve speed and accountability in everyone’s view, and exploring ones that dovetail with those of partner organizations would be helpful as well.
Overall, the session was full of commonly-identified obstacles, and lots of ideas to make things better.
Next up, on Monday, April 29, will be a Focus Group for large businesses/manufacturers to share the unique challenges and potential solutions relevant to them.
Stay tuned for more info and insights in this series.
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