After working with a nonprofit public interest law firm for about a year, the city of Fort Worth is taking steps to make it easier for people to start businesses — but still has a long way to go.
The city of Fort Worth partnered with The Institute for Justice last August to study obstacles to creating a business in the city. After the institute delivered the findings last November, the city is working to implement changes. A recent update from the institute shows the city is making some progress.
Jennifer McDonald, assistant director of activism special projects at The Institute for Justice, said some of the hurdles that the business community faces are common across cities. It’s always difficult to understand and navigate the regulatory process of starting a business, she said, and it can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming to do so.
The institute found that the average permitting and licensing cost to start a restaurant in Fort Worth, for example, is $4,250 across 21 fees.
However, McDonald is feeling good about the city’s efforts to make changes. The city has overhauled its website and has a small business task force working on policy recommendations.
“It’s just really encouraging to see that the city is committed to improving things for small business owners,” McDonald said.
The city has created a new website that fulfills 4 out of 5 of The Institute for Justice’s requirements for creating a “one-stop shop,” according to an updated report. What is lacking is the ability for someone to complete forms and registrations through one portal instead of individual agency websites.
The Institute for Justice did more than 40 interviews with business owners in Fort Worth. Most people cited general confusion about the process of starting a business, poor website experience, subjective inspections, trouble with grease traps and a lack of communication between departments.
For Cassie Warren, owner of Revive Coffee in the Northside of Fort Worth, doing business expeditiously with the city is about knowing the right contact to get correct information. Navigating the website and different departments is confusing, she said. Warren hopes the city takes the recommendations from the study and believes a third-party consultant needs to redo the whole process to make it better.
“It’s hard to get feedback, and then turn around and turn it into an actionable change that’s meaningful,” Warren said.
The Institute for Justice made six recommendations to the city:
- Continue building the city’s one-stop shop and how-to guides. That includes collaborating with various departments such as health and fire, including estimated compliance costs and regular website reviews.
- Eliminate or consolidate unnecessary permits and documentation.
- Bring clarity and transparency into the inspection process.
- Reduce compliance costs.
Development delays cost the city $1.4 million every month. The city’s development services department added 40 positions focusing on customer service in the 2023 budget to streamline the development process. The city also holds “Development 101” workshops.
The city’s development services department has brought on an inspection trainer to train new hires and do ride-alongs with veteran inspectors to focus on consistency, according to development services spokesperson Natalie Foster in an email sent to Fort Worth Report. The department is also working on updating the inspections portion of the website with more information about what inspectors will be looking for.
“Our staff members work tirelessly with customers who come in for help with their process, whether in person or on the phone,” DJ Harrell, director of development services, said in a statement. “They continue to create, update, and publish new guides and checklists, in English and Spanish, and facilitate the building process from start to finish, all to assist those small business owners looking to realize their dream of starting a business in our city.”
Some changes and recommendations won’t be easy to implement, McDonald said.
“Changing regulation is a really difficult thing to do,” McDonald said. “Because you have to balance public health and safety and the government’s interest in that, as well as the government’s interest in making sure that people can run their businesses and live their most successful lives.”
The most common thing The Institute for Justice heard during interviews with entrepreneurs, is that the city is run like a “country club” or “good ole boys” club, where individuals who are not well-connected have a hard time opening a business — which often excludes people of color, first-generation Americans and people with lower incomes, the report said.
“This exclusionary reputation can also be seen in unofficial practices that have arisen due to the congestion and complexity of the city’s official permit and licensing practices,” the report said. “And for Fort Worth entrepreneurs who are not wealthy, socially connected, native English speakers, or do not have experience reading the legalese of city code, these unofficial realities are often more challenging or nearly impossible to overcome.”
McDonald said getting rid of that “inside club” is going to take years, and the solutions will have to be multifaceted, but she feels the city is on board with making those changes.
“It’s going to be regulatory reform. It’s going to be management training for folks at the city,” McDonald said. “It’s going to be all kinds of things happening in a community that doesn’t involve the government at all. And so I think it’s just part of the natural evolution of communities.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.
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