Boulder Chamber Identifies Opportunities to Save Time and Money for Struggling Businesses

Businesses will be challenged by the impacts of COVID-19 for years to come. Most will have significantly reduced revenue. Helping our local restaurants, shops and businesses flourish under these conditions is a top priority. A key piece of this is ensuring Boulder provides a supportive business climate.

The Boulder Chamber launched a survey recently to identify opportunities to streamline the City of Boulder’s development and permitting process. The survey indicated that business applicants often encounter delays in opening their businesses due to regulatory and procedural challenges associated with redevelopment projects. These delays can add considerable expenses to the cost of opening or investing in a business, on top of already high rent costs in Boulder.

“Our businesses community will face catastrophic losses due to COVID-19,” said Boulder Chamber Senior Director of Policy Programs Lori Call. “As we navigate this crisis, we need to ensure that Boulder remains a welcoming place for business to operate by reducing costs due to unnecessary delays in development review and permitting procedures.”

The Boulder Chamber survey, produced with important feedback from City of Boulder Planning and Development Review staff team members, was distributed to nonprofit and for-profit organizations with experience working through the City of Boulder’s development and permitting process within the past two years. Projects analyzed ranged from small remodels to large redevelopments and new construction. Specific survey responses were kept anonymous to ensure confidentiality.

Some key findings:

  • 87% of respondents said the permitting process took “much longer” in Boulder than it does in other cities
  • 67% of respondents said the cost of building in Boulder was “much higher,” and attributed “city fees” and “process” to those costs. Only 40% of respondents attributed increased costs due to high land values.
  • Survey respondents observed significant improvements in the past 18 months. Notably the response time for initial project feedback has improved by 50%.

Survey respondents noted that working with City staff is often a positive experience, but staff should be empowered to make more decisions in order to help navigate one of the more complex regulatory codes in the nation. Since 2018, the survey indicated that interaction with staff has improved.

“The staff are terrific,” said one respondent. “But staff, planning board, and City Council are not in alignment and the decision makers seem to question staff’s work. This lack of trust causes delays and results in the applicant (and eventually the end-user/buyer) absorbing higher costs.”

Process complexity was called out as a specific challenge in the City of Boulder. City staff acknowledged the opportunities the survey identified and are focused on addressing key issues.

“The Chamber survey echoed a lot of what we were hearing from customers and staff about opportunities for process improvements, and I want to emphasize that we heard the community and continue to work on further process improvements to streamline and decrease review times,” said Mary Ann Weideman, Interim Director of Planning and Development Services.

While challenges were cited, the City of Boulder’s customer portal was identified as a best practice. “With the customer portal came more clarity of what is needed on the plans for approval. This has helped us, and helped staff approve the projects much faster. I LOVE the portal!”

The pre-application process was also identified as helpful. “It is always good to meet with staff early in the process,” said one respondent.

The Cities of Aurora, Arvada, Westminster and Thornton were cited for faster processes. “All are big cities and done through a customer portal with approval within a week,” one respondent said.

The Boulder Chamber stated that it looks forward to collaborating on the opportunities for further improvements in the development review and permitting processes identified through this data. “We are eager to partner with City of Boulder leadership in reducing unnecessary costs for our businesses,” Call said. “This is a chance to work together to help support the COVID-19 recovery efforts and to expedite the return to economic vitality.”

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