Health, Vitality of our Neighborhood Businesses

by Councilmember Rebecca Noecker

[Council Member Noecker addressed the annual meeting of the West 7th Business Association in February. Her remarks are excerpted here.]

I’m a firm believer that what makes St. Paul great are our incredible neighborhoods and what makes our neighborhoods great are our local businesses. But we can’t take those businesses for granted. As you know much better than I, running a small business is a complicated, tiring and ceaseless undertaking in which failure is just as likely as success no matter how long you’ve been around.

And I don’t have to tell you that this is a tough time for small businesses. Online competition, uncertainty about the impact of federal tariffs, and local regulations are making it difficult for small businesses to open and expand. Given this difficult climate, we need to be doing all we can at the City to create a healthy business climate — and I’d like to tell you a little about what we’re doing.

First, our Open for Business initiative, which was originally an informal collaboration between Council members Thao, Prince, me and City staff, has now been formalized into a sub-cabinet in Mayor Carter’s administration. We allocated $250,000 to create a Virtual One-Stop Shop in the Department of Safety and Inspections this year so that business owners can apply for permits and interact with all the necessary departments in one place. The Open for Business team meets regularly to improve customer service, discuss process improvements we can make to get things done faster, and to review regulations that can be lifted.

I’m also working with my colleagues to create a working capital fund to support small businesses through hard times. This idea originated in a meeting I co-convened to hear from business owners and business associations about what a proactive business policy agenda would look like. One idea that gained unanimous approval around the table was for the City to create a fund to give businesses working capital to tide them over when times are tight or when they’re in a period of transition. I’m working with my colleagues Council Members Thao and Prince to make this fund a reality — hopefully in the first half of this year.
Another important effort relates to the Riverview Corridor. I have been convening City staff from our Public Works and Planning and Economic Development teams to make sure we are being proactive about preparing our small businesses to thrive before, during and after the Corridor’s development. We recently held two debriefs with City, County and Met Council staff who were active in the development of the Green Line to learn what worked and what didn’t in supporting businesses during that project. We learned two important lessons: first, start engaging businesses very early. Second, help businesses prepare for the possible downsides of economic development, such as rent increases, by helping them shore up their finances, make capital improvements now rather than later, or buy their own buildings. I’m grateful that the West 7th Business Association and the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation have convened a Transit Task Force and my hope is to work closely with that group to keep businesses engaged throughout the process.

All of these efforts depend on regular communication and strong relationships with individual business owners, which is why the role of the City’s Business Development Director is so critical. We recently promoted Marcq Sung, a project manager on our economic development team, to this position. Marcq is energetic, smart and great at following-up, and I think he’ll do a great job supporting existing businesses and attracting new ones.
Finally, I’m planning a series of Commercial Corridor Tours this spring to hear from businesses along our major business arteries, including West Seventh Street. I hope to have one-on-one conversations with owners about the challenges and opportunities they’re experiencing, to help them connect with City staff who will be joining me, and to promote the businesses I visit through social media and on my website. These tours are very much in the planning stages and I’d love your input into how to make them effective.

None of these steps will be sufficient but I’m hoping they will be helpful. As always, I’d appreciate the chance to hear your ideas on how the City can be a better partner for small businesses. Thank you for doing business in St. Paul and for all you do to make the West Seventh neighborhood such a wonderful place.

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