The first of four targeted focus group sessions took place Monday (April 8) afternoon as the Mayor’s Red Tape Red Carpet Task Force initiative continues. Monday’s session was open to small business owners in Burlington and, since space permitted, took place in the Mayor’s Boardroom at City Hall from 2-3:30 p.m.
Attendees represented a range of industries including retail (clothing and food), marketing and consulting, and safety training businesses. Joelle Goddard-Cooling attended as owner of Joelle’s and Jeff’s Guy Shop, as well as an active member of the Burlington Downtown Business Association. Maria N. Thornton, owner of Flour Child Bakery, and Steven Hewson, owner of La Crème de la Crème Creamery attended, as did Kathryn Davies, Lead Instructor & Safety Consultant from Life’s Emergency Training, Maroun Naser, owner of VideoTube.ca, and Chantelle Misheal, City Program Coordinator of BurlingtonGreen. Mayor Meed Ward and Ward 1 Councillor Kelvin Galbraith were in attendance, as was Anita Cassidy, Acting Executive Director of the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC).
These business owners varied from spending 20-plus years running a successful small business here in Burlington, to those who are just celebrating their one-year anniversary. Many of them indicated the reason they chose Burlington as the place for their business was a combination of living here and calling it home, loving the people and culture around them, and the great amenities we have like the lakefront and all our festivals and events.
Similar to what was discussed at the broader town hall on March 28, the group shared stories of the origins of their businesses, why they chose to locate in Burlington, and what challenges they have faced over the years in growing their business here. The smaller group session, with many having similarities in size and scale, were able to focus their conversations on issues that are more common to small businesses in our City, and build on one another’s comments and learnings.
Some of the highlights of the discussion included the following:
- Access to qualified young labour. Factors that play a significant role in that challenge are a) the high price of living in Burlington and b) the difficulty in commuting here by anything other than a personal automobile, which many don’t have. Trying to recruit skilled employees from surrounding trade schools/colleges/universities is difficult when they find out how expensive starter townhomes or condos are here. With the often bus-train-bus experience most would have to partake in should they decide to commute from a neighboring community with potentially more affordable real estate options, the length of time of the commute becomes too prohibitive. Bottom line: more needs to be done to allow young people to live and/or work here, whether it’s through more affordable housing options or better/faster transit options.
- Red Tape. Many examples were given of challenges before a business could open, and the labyrinth of approvals and expenses that came along the way. Reference was made to needing engineering approvals on storefront signage (a reasonable request to ensure they’re safe and won’t fall on anyone) but there was a lack of understanding of whether the $800 engineering fee was reasonable, or whether more could be done to educate new business owners about alternative options that may be more affordable. Other examples were given about starting down one path of approval, only to be told later in the process that additional items were needed and additional expenses would have to be incurred that they had not budgeted for. Answers given by City Staff were referenced as sometimes being inconsistent with one another, leading to confusion. Overall, many spoke about a lack of support through the process. Those who had been around for 20+ years made reference to having strong and experienced mentors and using their own hard work and ability to pull in experts to advise them on things from accounting to networking and beyond. Some attendees had no idea if they belonged to their local BIA (or whether they even could), and most did not know about support that could be provided to them through partner organizations like the BEDC. Many wished they could give advice to new businesses setting up shop and better inform them of whether the location they are choosing is appropriate for their business model to help them avoid failure, and whether landlords and real estate agents can better help facilitate that evaluation for likelier long-term success. Bottom line: Can a smarter welcome package be created for those exploring starting a new small business in Burlington – one that outlines all the steps needed before opening, the demographics of different neighborhoods, and clearly directs people to the other resources available to help them get there? Can our staff be well-trained to provide a supportive and welcoming “red carpet” experience when new businesses reach out to start the process?
- Parking. While this is more of an issue for small business owners south of the QEW, such as in Aldershot or Downtown Burlington, it is a known challenge and source of frustration. When discussing Free Parking in December…business owners referenced abuse by people who already have parking passes elsewhere like their condos (but find street parking more convenient), and those who are employees of local businesses and drive to work that month since they can now get free parking. Neither option helps paying customers find additional spots. It was generally felt that there were too many confusing rules around parking in general (paid during the day but not after 6, but free in December, but still no parking anywhere for longer than 3 hours although there are some lots with exceptions to that, etc…). Bottom line: we need to think about the initiatives we are implementing around parking and whether they are supporting the goal they were intended to support.
- Foot Traffic. With many businesses dependent on foot traffic, weather plays a significant role in deterring people from coming across their business unless it is nice outside. There is a history of vacancies in areas due to past landlord decisions that didn’t feel supportive to the surrounding economy, and with new high-rise developments coming, people are worried about more empty storefronts due to potentially high rents. Bottom line: While it was understood the City doesn’t control the weather, or the decisions of landlords, discussion turned to what more we could do to encourage residents from all over town to visit popular events (via shuttle buses, for example) and if we could create more events that take place in varied neighborhoods rather than always downtown.
Next up on the focus group list this week is a session with City Staff and Partner Organizations, so we will have that newsletter out as soon as we can compile the insights and comments.
Thank you for following along with us as we continue to collect the stories and suggestions that will help make Burlington the best place to do business!
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