In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, District 3 councilmember Michael Crain speaks about the city’s small business taskforce. One of the goals of the task force is to make the process of creating a business in Fort Worth easier.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Seth Bodine: Can you tell me a little bit about the goals of the Small Business Committee?
Michael Crain: Sure. Well, as you know, the mayor set up this entrepreneurship and innovation committee. And this was something she and I had talked about during the campaign of, we have these entrepreneurs and innovators here doing some great things. But there hasn’t
necessarily been a focus on their work from the city. I know Leonard Firestone, who represents District 7, also, because he is an entrepreneur and had a great interest in it.
So that (entrepreneurship and innovation) committee was set up, it’s made up of some great people. But the focus really isn’t on the small businesses. Small businesses are entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs and innovators aren’t necessarily all small businesses. So I asked the mayor, with her consent, could we set up this other committee that really looks at problems, issues that small businesses face here in Fort Worth? And that’s how the committee was born.
Bodine: Can you tell me about some of the goals of the committee?
Crain: Of course. When we looked at the entrepreneurship and innovation committee, it was more about supplying information and understanding our entrepreneurial network here. The Small Business Task Force, really we’re really charged with two things. And there might be offshoots that happened from there.
Robert Sturns runs our economic development department, (which is) now housed at the Business Assistance Center. But when we open and go into the new city hall, the economic development office will move into the new city hall. And so there was a question of what happens with the Business Assistance Center. It could still be there. But is that the best use? That model was set up probably a couple of decades ago, with the thought process that there will be a central place where people can come and get information. But with digital being where it is now and changing where and how people get information, it’s really a question of: Is it still serving its best role by that? So that was one charge.
And the second charge is just looking across the board at our development process, our permitting process. And is it helping or hindering our small businesses? I think at least initial feedback, I had a lot of anecdotal feedback from the small businesses and entrepreneurs that I know. Y’all have written about one recently that I’ve met with, The Holly, over there about their challenges. And so (we’re) really taking a comprehensive look at here’s how you actually get a business open. But are there ways we can cut the bureaucracy and maybe other parts of it to make it easier for this small business to get open?
Bodine: From what I understand there’s sort of a study going on through a third party consultant. And can you tell me a little bit about the purpose of that study?
Crain: Sure, I have to give credit to Cameron Cushman and Marco Johnson with Sparkyard that came up with this. Institute for Justice had done a study several months ago, they focused on 20 cities, and they took typical businesses. They use a barber shop, they use a bookstore, they use some other restaurants, and they kind of walk through each of those 20 cities. What are the issues they have to get them open? What does it cost? And what are some policy changes that a city might do to make it easier for them?
So through that process, and that outreach, we’re gonna be the 21st city they look at, and walk through our systems and processes. Then we, as policymakers, come up with some policy ideas for us to help make it easier for our small businesses. For me, I’ve been an entrepreneur and run a small business now. And so it’s personal for me, and we spend a lot of our thoughts and efforts, etc., trying to get that next Fortune whatever number company to come and move its headquarters here. But we haven’t spent that same amount of energy at the city (level) on our small businesses and growing them. I know that there’s a next RadioShack or Alcon or name some of these iconic businesses that were really started and grown here in Fort Worth. I know they’re out there. So we need to put as much focus on that as we do on other attracting businesses.
Bodine: Do you know when the committee should have results for that report?
Crain: So they were here, Institute for Justice, about six weeks ago and they briefed the committee on their findings and sort of their thought process with the other 20 cities. And then they had a few roundtables while they were here.
I’ll say right now, they’re still collecting data. So if there’s someone out there, that’s a small business or has gone through the process, and wants feedback, contact my office. I’ll put you in touch with them. They’d like as much of that anecdotal feedback as possible. And then they’re meeting with city staff to understand their processes.
And so my goal is before the end of the year, they come back with something that says here is what we found. I will say, their initial findings is Fort Worth is not the hardest place that they’ve seen, and that there already is a focus on small businesses. But it’s not the easiest, depending on what the business is.
In Texas, in general, there’s no general business license that you have to get. In some states there are. Fort Worth doesn’t have a general business license, you know, the zoning has to be correct. And there’s some permitting that has to be done. But there’s definitely some things that I think that we can cut the bureaucracy and the red tape to help those small businesses. And I’m looking forward to that.
Bodine: Is there anything that you found surprising, something that you didn’t expect from some of those preliminary findings?
Crain: Well, I mean, what I just said is that we aren’t the hardest, because all I hear about are the bad stories and how long it took and the real negative parts. You know, no one ever calls our office or stops us to tell us: ‘Hey, great job on doing this way to go, we got this done. This was great.’
You really gotta hear from developers or small businesses of how difficult the process was, etc. I went through it myself. And you know, you had to have an extra sink here and an extra, this bathroom had to be up to this, you know, bars and the bathroom and everything else. Little things you don’t think about, but those delays, every delay, it costs money. It costs the entrepreneur, that small business money from them getting that business open and operating, and it costs the city money – tax dollars, etc. that commercial business isn’t open. And so however we can figure that out to help is what we should be doing.
Bodine: To what extent is permitting and zoning, the nitty gritty parts of establishing a business the largest complaint?
Crain: I would say, Seth, it’s all the above, right? I mean every day, you know, when someone has a dream, and they’re like, I want to start this, then you’re already bought in at that point, as a small business. You’re like, I know I can do this.
Then there are steps you have to get through. If you think about it, they’ve already probably had to put that dream on paper and do a business plan that they may have never done, because they’ve got to present it to a bank or to friends or other financiers to maybe get some money for it. Or to understand how much money this is going to cost. So there’s already been a lot of thought, time and heart put into something. So by the time you get to well, I want to get a physical structure, etc., I would say it becomes a frustrating process.
Big developers, large developers, have the resources to go find someone that knows the process to help them work through zoning, help them work through, you know, even as we get to the initial stage of business plans of what that looks like. And have a little more, if they’ve done a deal before, a little more sophistication. But a lot of these businesses have never done this. And so everything – it’s foreign and new to them. Even some more sophisticated small business owners that have done it before still find new bureaucracy that they hit depending on that.
So what I would say is there’s a great opportunity for us as a city to show our value of these small businesses, of finding a way to cut down the bureaucracy and make it easy to digest. The process is easy to understand. Zoning is always a challenge depending on what you’re trying to do. But I will say in a lot of ways we’ve made zoning more straightforward and clear to some to encourage certain types of development in certain areas.
Permitting can always be an issue. I will say, this new budget. I’m very proud. For the last couple of years, I’ve been a proponent and even before I was sat in the office of the councilman, when I was the district director, working with DJ Harrell and Dana Burghdoff about how do we get more resources to you? And what does that look like? And what’s the game plan? So this new budget has 19 new development services positions in it, there’s some restructuring.
So within development services, I think there’s upwards of 40 people that will be assigned to development services. And that’s something we always get that it’s always a person changing, it’s always new, or who gets it, who’s assigned it. This should bring some consistency to it. And also should bring what we’re calling, maybe a neighborhood aspect, but they’re all going to be housed together all in the same area. So that doesn’t matter if you’re doing, you know, fire or water, or whatever the steps are the all the sign offs that have to happen, platting, etc. They’re all going to be housed together, and can hopefully streamline the time it takes projects to come to fruition.
Bodine: Once you get the final results, what steps will the committee take?
Crain: What I’ve committed to, and I know the mayor is behind this as well, is to show our small businesses that we are really behind them. We want them to succeed. So my hope is that what comes back out of this process, from the report, will be substantive policy changes that can make it easier, or suggestions of things that we can do.
You know, one easy suggestion we can do is: Should small businesses be paying the same permitting fees as large developments? And there’s some scaling that happens, depending on what it is. But that’s also something I know that we could do, and it’s just you have to make it a budget priority.
I don’t know what this is going to come back and say where we’re deficient or where we can be better or where we’re excelling, and if we tweaked would be even better. But what I can say is I’m dedicated to making sure that that happens. And our businesses here deserve it. We always say live, work and play in Fort Worth. But really, it’s that part of how we make it easy so you can work but also live in and then have some time to play here in Fort Worth. And I’m dedicated to making sure that still happens.
Bodine: To what extent has the committee started the conversation about what will actually happen to the Business Assistance Center?
Crain: We’ve had two meetings so far for this committee. The last one being solely about the Institute for Justice, because that was something not known to us when we first started this. So we met in May, met again in July. We’ll probably meet sometime in September. We haven’t set that meeting date yet.
And I’m sort of waiting on if we get more word from the Institute of Justice where they are to do that, but we’re in about every other month timeline. There’s a little bit of that, that’s me, too. I don’t like to meet just to meet. I got enough meetings. And these are small businesses. And I know that they’re when they take an hour, hour and a half out of their time, it’s a big chunk of time.
That being said, we haven’t really delved down into what’s happening with the Business Assistance Center, other than the feedback we did get from the initial meeting is a lot of people didn’t really know it existed, didn’t use any of the services there.
So I think there’s some thought process there, definitely, of what we do. There’s some great organizations that are housed there. And, you know, how do they fit into this role? Excellerate DFW, the Black Chamber of Commerce is there. So how did they fit into that?
I want to answer the question of, if it doesn’t mean housing services there that people go to, then how do we fulfill that void that we need? And, you know, we’ve got great community centers that are out in the communities. Could programming go there?
There’s so much that can be done online. Sort of a Fort Worth masterclass could be put, I just made that up as we’re talking. But that’s what I’m thinking of. How (do) we put those resources out so that people don’t have to go to a physical location and can get the information they need?
There are resources out there when people have an initial question about where do I go or they found someone that’s gone through the process, sort of mentors. But there’s not a lot for that next stage, when you’ve gotten to a certain number of employees, and you need accounting work, or you need payroll, and all those other things that start happening as you grow a business.
There aren’t a lot of resources, or at least resources there. Sparkyard is a resource that is trying to build out that platform, and so maybe there’s some resources put there to help build out that platform and those resources that we need. You know, I had a conversation with Dean Ahdieh at the (Texas A&M) law school, and they already have pro bono access (for) people (who) have some legal questions that they need answered. It’s probably getting our hands around all those resources that exist for small businesses, and that’s hopefully another goal of this committee. And we can put that together as well.
Bodine: Anything else you’d like to add or think I should know?
Crain: Well, I would just reiterate that this is for me, and I know for the mayor, of focus for us, that we know that our permitting system makes it more difficult on smaller businesses. We’ve been really dedicated to working with our development services and what we can do at the city, bringing people to the table to help. And you know, externally, outside the city, what are the resources that exist to make sure that we are our small businesses here thriving and growing and and really become a part of the Fort Worth fabric?
Bodine: Councilmember, thank you.
Crain: Thanks, Seth. I appreciate it.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.