The Key to City Hall

Dealing with permits, zoning, inspections—it’s one of a business owner’s biggest headaches. But more cities are trying to make it easier to wrestle with all the red tape.

You can’t fight City Hall. For too many business owners, that has been a rock-solid fact of life—one they have repeatedly banged their heads against.

That might be changing, though. Around the Kansas City region, several local governments are trying to make it easier for owners of small businesses to obtain permits and approvals, schedule inspections and deal with the myriad approvals that local government requires.

Some are even setting up offices or appointing staff to help companies navigate the process. And many entrepreneurs are finding that dealing with City Hall isn’t quite the exercise in frustration it once was.

“I think City Hall has done a lot over the last couple years to make the process for small businesses—and businesses in general—more streamlined,” said Brad Satterwhite, an architect and principal at KEM Studio in Kansas City’s West Bottoms.

Not that there isn’t room for improvement. Danny O’Neill, founder and president of The Roasterie, recently completed a $5 million renovation and expansion of the coffee producer’s headquarters on Kansas City’s West Side.

“When we got started, it was really great. They made it easy,” O’Neill said of his dealings with City Hall. “But it wasn’t always easy, especially when we got deeper into the culture, into the bureaucracy.”

A Higher Level of Communication

In his many years as an architect, Satterwhite has had countless dealings with City Hall, typically on behalf of his firm’s clients. He credits the city’s Development Assistance Team (DAT) for helping to foster communication between businesses and the various offices within City Hall.

Formed in 1997, DAT is a committee that meets once a month and is made up of representatives from city departments involved in the development process.

For someone like Satterwhite, who works on many large building projects, the opportunity to have everyone sitting down at the table at one time is a huge benefit. For instance, KEM is currently in the early phase of a residential development that will require approval from Zoning, Parks and Recreation, Building Codes and other departments.

Though it is not a final review, meeting with DAT provides an opportunity to identify potential problems and concerns early on, without having to traipse from one department to another
and another.

“Historically, the communication between the different departments was one of the more difficult things, from a small business standpoint,” said Satterwhite. “What may be acceptable to one department may not jibe with another department.

“In this case, we were able to sit down and identify all the problems that could hinder us from both a design perspective and also, for the developer, from a financial perspective, and get them out on the table and get everybody communicating.”

Increased communication also was important for Geri Higgins, owner of Portfolio Kitchen and Home.

In 2011, Higgins moved her operation to the historic Pershing Building across from Union Station. Renovating the 7,000 square feet of raw space—while complying with both building codes and historic preservation issues—was a daunting undertaking, with lots of risk and little room for error.

“It wasn’t easy, but it was a very reasonable process,” Higgins said of her interaction with the city. “It would have been crippling for a small business like ours had the process not gone as well as it did.

“Every hurdle we had to jump, there was somebody there giving clarification. I was never just told I couldn’t do something. When there was an issue, it was communicated. And everyone at City Hall I ever called always returned my phone calls. That’s a big thing!”

Help with Navigating City Hall

A great deal of praise is given to KC Bizcare and its Business Customer Service Center, a city agency established in 2009 to support the small business community in Kansas City, Mo. Spearheaded by former city manager Wayne Cauthen and Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo, KC Bizcare occupies a storefront space on Oak Street that used to be a parking garage.

“We understand that the small businesses really are the backbone of any community,” said Circo, who remembers the headache of filing for her first business permit. “It’s tough for them.”

According to John Pajor, who manages the three-person office, the storefront location was an important part of the strategy to make the office accessible to small business owners, some of whom found navigating the 30 floors of City Hall intimidating. Anyone starting a business or needing to find out what the city requires of them can go to the Business Customer Service Center for advice.

“Basically, we try to get people to the front door of the offices where they need to go,” Pajor said.

In 2010, the Finance Department moved its business licensing staff to the same physical space as KC Bizcare. The business licensing office is one of the most high-traffic offices in the city government, with lots of walk-in customers.

Tim Sylvester needed a license for his new business, Integrated Roadways, last year. He stopped in to the KC Bizcare office for permits.

“It was a breeze,” he said. “I was in and out in 45 minutes. If there is a more efficient system out there than KC Bizcare, I’m not aware of it. The whole process was very easy.”

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

Sometimes, it’s enough just to have staffers who can serve as a regular point of contact.

Scott Kelley is the owner of Earthway Enterprises, a residential remodeler. Kelley has been in business here since 1999 and has worked in most communities in Kansas City. While some inefficiency seems to be built into city government, many have streamlined their processes well, he said.

“Honestly, I can’t say I’ve had a bad experience with any municipality,” Kelley said.

He was recently at Leawood City Hall, where he had to apply for four different permits, one of them for a 2,000-square-foot deck.

“They are very detail-oriented there, and I’ve heard a lot of people say that Leawood is hard to deal with,” he said. “I was in and out in 20 minutes. That’s probably because we have been dealing with the staff at Leawood for 13 years. We’re on a first-name basis with all of them.”

Having a familiar contact at City Hall can help small business owners learn about processes and rules.

Bryan King, co-owner of The Stanley Event Company in downtown Lee’s Summit, has had extensive dealings with City Hall there recently. He and his wife bought and renovated the Stanley Historic Event Space in 2010. Back then, King left most of the red tape to his architect and contractor.

The Kings are currently working on The Aspen, a new 4,500-square-foot building that will also serve as an event space, to be erected on a parking lot behind The Stanley.

This time around, King has been handling virtually all of the meetings with the Lee’s Summit Planning Commission and other city agencies, giving presentations to the City Council and the like. Since he is not a professional developer, he found he needed to educate himself to learn how the process works.

He got help in the early stages from the Planning Commission, as well as from advocates at City Hall who supported the project and from Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street, a nonprofit group that supports the city’s downtown.

“I think the system that’s in place is a good one,” King said. “It was not an easy process. To me, it seemed like it took a little bit longer than necessary, but I think everything was done for a reason.”

Change Takes Time

While he had some criticisms, O’Neill was quick to acknowledge that bringing change to an entrenched, bureaucratic culture is a slow and difficult task.

“It’s hard. I understand that, and I appreciate that,” O’Neill said. “I want to be fair, but we definitely had some issues along the way.”

He, too, has noticed a difference in dealing with City Hall compared to times past.

“In the old days, it was a long, hard slog to get anyone’s attention at City Hall,” said O’Neill, who started The Roasterie in 1993. “This time around, it was much easier. They were on it. I was satisfied with the way City Hall responded, just about all of the time.”