Why Can't We Be Friends: Small Business and the City of Ottawa
I'd seen ya walking down in Chinatown
I called ya but you could not look around
Why can't we be friends
Why can't we be friends
Why can't we be friends
Why can't we be friends
I remember the day I signed my lease for my first location at 507 Bronson. Formerly the Pitary (the beloved Wholesale vegetarian sandwich shop in Ottawa for 25 years.), I was confident I had found my dream Wholesale location for Auntie Loo’s. I took my mentor Brad Campeau (formerly b goods, now Brew Donkey) along with me and we both agreed this was a great choice. Little needed to be done structurally, and all the equipment could be included in the rental. Going from being a record shop clerk to a full time entrepreneur, this was great news, as I had no money, no credit and a modest loan from the Ottawa Community Loan Fund.
Lease in hand and business school training in mind, I headed to city hall to do my due diligence- making sure the zoning and property taxes were what my new landlord said they were. I arrived at the zoning desk, confident in what I would find. The Pitary had been there for 25 years on a main artery in Ottawa, surely they couldn't hide from bylaw.
The officer returned, printout in her hand.
“Its zoned for retail food, an animal clinic, or a convenience store.” She said.
I furrowed my brow- I had zero intention of ever being open to the public. I loved the freedom and flexibility of Wholesale. Plus retail food meant extra bathrooms, shop hours, and other expenses I wasn't prepared for.
“It was a closed wholesale food preparation site for 25 years,” I said. “Are you sure? I really don't want to be open to the public.”
“Yes, I'm sure. You could dispute the zoning- its $2500 and a six month process” she said, handing me the printout and walking off.
I walked home, tears in my eyes trying to think of solutions. This was the beginning of my small business relationship with the city, and I was too green to realize how easily I had actually gotten off.
Three weeks later after talking to pretty much everyone, I obtained information that there was no minimum amount you had to be open per week to the public, you just had to be available. If I wanted to be a jerk I could just unlock the door and call it retail , but being nervous about being shut down, I decided to be open 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. For now.
Flash forward a few months- I've spent the summer diligently building my little shop, and I'm finally ready to go. I have my business license registered and paid for, but it still hasn't come in the mail. It clearly states the license must be on display when you open. I call the city to follow up.
“The license isn't sent until you've had your health inspection,” an officer told me.
I hung up and found the information on my health inspector. I sent her an email. “we don't come to inspect until you have your license on the wall.” Was her reply. I invited her to please come by as soon as possible anyway to tell me if things were up to code. She did.
Confused and losing money as I really needed to be able to use my space, I did something I don't recommend but don't regret. I looked up what a fine was if I got caught for opening without my license on the wall. At the time it was $1500. I did some quick addition to see how much I would lose in waIting another 2 weeks. Around $3500. My personal choice was clear- I'd passed the initial health inspectors look over after all. I set the date for my grand opening and began baking in my space.
My license came in the mail- 6 weeks after all this.
I could write volumes on mine and my friends businesses’ saga with the City of Ottawa, but we'll save it for another time. City officials- this post is kinda for you. We all have a job to do, and I respect that. But you can really do better, I've seen efforts happening over the years, and I don't doubt you. It must be awful dealing with angry folks all day, but they'd be less angry if there was consistency and empathy in the message.
If I may, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, these suggestions could make all the difference.
The Business Ambassador Program
A noble effort, truly it is. One person designated to help small business owners obtain, time, and fill out the necessary permits. Free of charge to small business owners. The issue? Sadly, none of your officers respect the ambassador. Permits filled out with their assistance are often met with “Well they're not the expert…” or “They don't even work in this department..” from city officials. Perhaps creating an ambassador in each department, or “one ambassador to rule them all” would be helpful. In the meantime, while the guidance is great, this program is falling flat on its ass. And it's a shame.
City Officers With a Heart
Seeing a deadpan face when being told your building permit will take 4 months, not 2 is devastating. No offers of assistance, no suggestions on how to expedite or what you can do in the meantime just fuels an “us vs. them” attitude in the small business community. Why can't we have officers who are empathetic, who can suggest and implement alternatives? Offer some real help?
True story. If someone comes to you a year before getting their business going, and you tell them the zoning is fine- don't change your official decision a month before they open. It's messing with a business plan and costing them money. This causes them hardship which could lead to bankruptcy which ultimately, leads to lost property taxes. You lose too Ottawa.
How about when they come to you, you provide them with a confirmed, signed printout guaranteeing the zoning. We all win.
Printed Timelines for New Business Owners
Accessible on the city website, why not have a checklist of everything a small business owner will have to file, in order of what takes the longest to clear (ie building permit) to the shortest (checking your zoning). This could save time, tears, and money for everyone.
My lovely entrepreneurs I haven't forgotten you today! Here are my personal best practices for dealing with the City of Ottawa.
Get it in writing
Emails have name, date and time stamps on them, and are excellent as proof/evidence of things you were told. Ensure every move you make with the city has email proof. I usually get the officers to email me a summary if our discussions have been verbal.
Buy a notebook from the dollar store, and keep track of every time you go in. Date, time, and who you spoke to and what was said. Everyone at the city has their own card, so take one from each person you talk to and tape or staple it in your book.
Check 1, 2….
Just because you were told one thing doesn't mean it's the final word. Get a friend or partner to call in too, just to check your zoning, bylaw, etc. I personally like to get 3 consistent answers before I move forward.
When I told my biz bestie (my friend JF, who I discuss, debate, and drunkenly argue all things business with- podcast coming soon) I was writing this post, she lovingly said “Lady, we're not putting our Mohawks up to go into CBGB. You can't rebel against the city.”
I'll finish todays post with what I replied to her.
City of Ottawa, I love your guts. We just have to work on our relationship right now. I know you have it in you to do better, and we all love you so much we just wanna open our great creative businesses here. We’re not interested in breaking the law. You want a city with a rich small business community, we want to live our dream and support ourselves in doing so. Lets figure out a way to work together, with consistency, mutual respect and empathy.