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California City Solutions: Santa Barbara Develops One-Stop-Shop Web Portal for Small Businesses

December 16, 2016
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
 
The 2016 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. The Guide to Start and Grow Your Business in Santa Barbara was submitted in 2016 for the League Partners Award for Excellence in the City-Business Relations award category.
 
Working with local business organizations and entrepreneurs, the city of Santa Barbara developed a program to help small business owners navigate city regulations and services. This program comprises an instructional guide, online resources, videos and a quarterly newsletter to make it easier for entrepreneurs to find the resources they need to make informed decisions and spend wisely for their business.
 
Santa Barbara in recent years conducted roundtable discussions with the various business sectors quarterly to understand their challenges and to improve services. In 2013, the mayor met with local entrepreneurs who had experience launching their first business or growing their operations. Entrepreneurs shared stories about the difficulties of finding information by visiting multiple departments or being caught off guard by new information.
 
Common inquiries included:
  • Understanding what activities might require approvals;
  • How to plan tenant improvements and navigate the planning and permitting process;
  • When to get a business license;
  • Best practices to conserve water; and
  • Obtaining permits for events and special needs. 
Leasing or purchasing a new space is a critical and expensive decision for entrepreneurs and many business owners voiced frustrations about learning of planning and permitting regulations after committing to a lease. City staff also realized the countless hours spent assisting first-time business owners who made decisions and commitments without key information in hand. If business owners researched a property, understood requirements, and planned accordingly, they could avoid significant expenses and later complication with the city when they needed to comply with building regulations.
 
Communicating with prospective business owners further adds to the challenge because entrepreneurs may not understand that there are regulations that need to be followed and may not visit a city counter or website until they are too far along in the process. Some businesses noted that they were hesitant to contact the city because they may be taking a risk in sharing plans that would later not be approved. Unfortunately, this mindset prevents business owners from getting the early advice that is essential for them to successfully implement their business plans. 
 
Santa Barbara developed online resources and videos to help business owners navigate regulations and services that may affect their business. A guide on Starting and Growing Your Business is provided over the counter for every new business license. The city’s website was also reorganized with a portal of business information to connect entrepreneurs with advice on specific business needs that include creating a disaster plan, conserving water, placing tables on the sidewalk for outdoor dining, and installing any type of signage. The online resources include an interactive mapping tool to create custom-designed maps, library databases available for consumer research, advice to certify as a green business, and directions to list businesses on Google maps. An area for community resources was also developed on the website featuring organizations that provide start-up assistance, mentorship and networking organizations, incubators that offer low-cost work spaces and meeting areas, and trade and professional associations.
 
Communication materials were designed to translate difficult concepts and explain issues to a first-time business owner. Improved messaging and tone helps entrepreneurs build trust and develop a new mindset that the city values local businesses, understands their challenges, and appreciates their commitment to remain in Santa Barbara. Businesses are strongly encouraged to seek advice early and often because the city wants to be a partner in their success.
 
The city produced videos with examples of businesses complying with regulations and introduce key city staff who could explain their services. Video topics include police services, water conservation, obtaining a business license, how restaurants and automotive businesses can prevent water pollution, and the basics of planning and development. The video library continues to grow with new topics to address different business services.
 
The quarterly newsletter helps the city remain in regular contact with business owners. The brief communication includes short videos and key information to highlight new city policies affecting the business community. Roundtable meetings with community business organizations provide a forum to discuss outreach opportunities and brainstorm ideas for new content to help local businesses. Staff has also been trained in specific customer service protocols to help new and existing businesses.
 
The city has received positive feedback on this effort. Since the online resources were launched, the business site has received over 6,600 visits with 83 percent representing return visitors. A high level of return indicates that businesses are relying on the site for information. When someone visits the city’s home page, the business area is one of the most frequently visited areas of the site.
 
Collaboration with business and entrepreneurial organizations has helped leverage the strengths of each organization to raise the level of community services provided to entrepreneurs.
 
Other cities can easily adopt similar practices and improve connections with the business community. While cities may not be in a position to solve many problems facing local businesses, they can make it easier to navigate the existing municipal services and regulations by taking steps to organize and improve their information so businesses avoid visiting every counter to help with each step.


 
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