Thursday, June 17, 2010

Council Member Brad Lander Weighs in on the Challenges Facing Small Businesses

All About 5th continues with its second (of three) installments of our interview with Council Member Brad Lander. See earlier interview here.

AAF: What are the major challenges facing small businesses locally and what are your plans to address them?

Council Member Lander: As readers of this blog know very well, the small, independently-owned businesses that line our commercial avenues are a key part of what make our neighborhoods, well, real neighborhoods. We are lucky to live in a place where we can walk to do so much of our weekly shopping, where we are likely to see neighbors, where we know the proprietors, where we have a choice to support local businesses instead of only global chains. Unfortunately, our small businesses face big challenges. Real estate, energy, and other costs of skyrocketed in recent years. Too many of us these days are doing more of our shopping online. And the economic downturn has been especially hard on those businesses without deep pockets or cash reserves.

Government can't solve all of these problems, but we should do all we can to provide a level playing field. So I've been troubled when I've asked small business owners their biggest problem - and they've indicated it was agency inspectors who seemed bent on levying fines in order to raise revenue for the City, rather than attending to public health or safety, much less to help make our small businesses better and stronger. So, I was proud earlier this month when the City Council passed the "Small Business Owners Bill of Rights," an important first step towards ensuring that small businesses in the city are able to survive and thrive in these difficult economic times. The new legislation requires inspectors, upon entering a business, to give owners a written bill of rights, that lets them know how they can contest a claim (which they will soon be able to do online) or make a complaint, and sets a standard for fair and consistent enforcement.

The idea of a small business owner's bill of rights was one of 14 recommendations that were proposed by the Regulatory Review Panel, a joint task force between the City Council and the Mayor's office that reviewed City regulations and their impact on small businesses. Many local businesses and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce weighed in as part of the Panel's efforts. One of my favorite of the other recommendations is giving small businesses the opportunity to fix non-emergency violations first, and not to levy any fine if the violation if fixed in a reasonable period of time. You can see more of the others here. This is just a first step, but I believe it is a good one.

There are many other things I’d love to be able to do to help small businesses locally over the next few years. We need some way to help address the real estate challenge than confronts businesses in our ever-more-expensive neighborhood. I think one solution would be a property tax break to building owners who rent commercial spaces to small, independently-owned businesses … but that will probably have to wait until the City’s budget picture improves, as we are currently facing cuts of over $1 billion, so it is not a good time to propose new tax breaks.

I’d also be interested in helping Brooklyn businesses expand their online purchasing presence, perhaps through an expanded “Buy Brooklyn” website. One challenge is that so many of us do our shopping late at night, after the kids are asleep. Its easy enough to choose a local business over a chain store when you have the time to shop in person … but hard to make more time in our busy lives. What I’m imagining is a site that offers you options to buy gifts and household products online, from local businesses, before you click the purchase button on Amazon.

Interview with Rebeccah Welch

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