The Toll of Boulder’s Development Regulations

Greg Lefcourt loves coffee and has been in the specialty coffee industry for almost two decades. When he and Nafisa Ramos sought to open Beleza Coffee Bar in Boulder, they wanted us all to experience the beauty of craft coffee along with the warmth of a neighborhood gathering place. The experience of actually opening the business was, unfortunately, a less than beautiful example of how, despite stated support for small, locally-owned businesses, the city of Boulder could do much more to foster their prosperity.

Time waits for no one — unless you’re undertaking the grueling Boulder permitting and licensing process. Following its initial eight-week review period, the city required Greg to submit additional application amendments, which he turned around in 48 hours. Even so, with their rent payments commencing, it was crickets for another five weeks. It took 13 weeks total for Greg to obtain approval for Beleza’s original development application. Thirteen weeks for a mere interior tenant finish with no structural construction whatsoever. For small businesses, time is money, without deep pockets to cover the extra months paying rent – along with the expense of hiring and training staff – all while waiting to open their doors.

Even with their development approval in hand, Beleza’s journey was far from over – there was still the sales tax license process to overcome. Greg applied in August of 2018. After three and a half months with no feedback or response, Greg received notice that the City required a full use review, just days before his planned opening; this for only transforming one coffee shop into another with no exterior changes. After many hours of negotiation and numerous trips to City offices, Greg finally received his sales tax license. This unnecessary hurdle could have easily bankrupted the project just a few steps from the finish line. Again, time is money.

Finally, although I know City staff is making genuine and constructive efforts toward addressing these identified concerns, the hurdles Beleza encountered seem to indicate a general lack of consideration for the pressures business entrepreneurs face. Greg reports that the City blamed all its delays on “understaffing,” an understaffing issue that persisted throughout the entire three-month period of Greg’s efforts to open his store. At some point, it’s just status quo and a tired excuse for the lack of responsiveness. And what did City staff tell the contractor who submitted Greg’s initial redevelopment plans, after the contractor mentioned that his clients were putting their life savings into this project? “Good luck with that.”

Unfortunately, Greg’s experience is not unique. Downtown Boulder CEO Sean Maher and I frequently hear similar stories. Tales of expensive, often delayed processes that often stifle the innovation and entrepreneurship we value in Boulder. These are the same formidable hurdles behind many small business departures and defeated concepts that never see the light of day. Add this to the high rental rates that often reflect City Council-imposed fee hikes and regulatory rate increases. As Sean exclaimed in a recent column, “It shouldn’t take six months to approve a new sign above your front door.”

We need to stop making it so needlessly difficult for small companies to open and prosper. Development regulation and review is important, but wielded insensitively, it can exact a crippling cost on those seeking to start operations, let alone discouraging them from moving forward.

Let’s really support our small and locally-owned businesses. We can begin with the same attitude of “positive service” that Greg coaches in his staff. A simple, “How can I help you achieve your goals,” along with prompt follow-up, would go a long way toward fueling the spark of small business innovation – and the same applies to larger businesses. Moving forward, we should also take steps to reduce permit review and licensing periods while also investing in small business success through lower development fees (which Greg reports ran into the thousands).

The Boulder Chamber recognizes the tremendous contribution small businesses make to our community. As I’ve written before, [See “Someone (Really) Cares About Small Businesses and Nonprofits”], they provide valuable jobs and services. They also are often the startups that fuel our renowned entrepreneurial economy. Moreover, the folks opening and operating these businesses are real people, optimistic about Boulder’s future and proud to help it thrive. Let’s work together – City staff, small business leaders, and those who support them – to make the changes that give them the best chance for a bright and thriving future.

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