Small businesses seeking relief from town restrictions and permitting are turning up the heat on Gilbert officials.
For three hours this week, development services employees, members of the new Town Council and the new mayor, John Lewis, toured Gilbert by bus to listen to complaints from parking restrictions to the confusing red tape an entrepreneur must endure to hoist a new sign.
“We’re not picking on the town, we’re trying to partner with the town,” said Lisa Rigler, president of the Gilbert Small Business Alliance. “The whole objective of (the tour) was looking at the challenges, finding the opportunities and creating those solutions.”
The alliance is also arranging a small-business summit at Town Hall on Thursday. About 25 owners are invited to share their experiences with town government.
“We are wanting to find out from them what worked, what didn’t work, what are some issues they are still dealing with, and continue to catch that feedback,” Lewis said. “I anticipate it will be more of another information gathering session and then after that, we’ll come up with the action items and see what we can do.”
Lewis was one of several council members and challengers who ran, in part, on the promise to advocate a number of business-friendly causes, including making the permitting process more understandable and efficient.
One thing Rigler and members of the business community would like to see is a streamlined Web page for one-stop shopping when it comes to getting instructions and forms for items like certificates of occupancy, special-event permits or new signs.
“It’s just that the business owners are the customers here,” Rigler said. “So the customer needs customer service.”
Barbara Addiego didn’t feel much like a customer when she tried to get a permanent sign for her new business — Tees And More, an apparel screen printing, embroidery and promotional products business at Vaughn Avenue and Gilbert Road.
“It’s still not up, and I’ve been here since November,” she said. “It’s just a lot of paperwork (and) a lot of red tape and I’m not sure why.”
Addiego described another hassle in which a town employee first told her to apply for a tenant improvement permit when all she wanted to do was paint her walls and lay new flooring.
Tenant improvement permits are for major changes such as installing walls, windows or plumbing. Later, Addiego was told a tenant improvement permit was unnecessary.
“It just depends on who you talk to,” she said.
Lewis, who helped arrange the Wednesday tour, said Gilbert’s approval processes are more suited to the needs of a major company with greater resources, acumen and staff than they are a small mom-and-pop shop.
“For the smaller businesses, we need to simplify,” he said. “We need to make it easier. We need to give them resources that they can go to.”
He pointed to the FieldHouse Sports Bar & Eatery — one of the tour’s featured businesses — as an example.
When the FieldHouse’s owner, Phil Hollman, wanted approval to put a few tables and chairs outside his restaurant at Ray Road and Val Vista Drive, he was given a 30-page document to fill out.
“Of those 30 pages, maybe two pages were applicable (to Hollman’s request),” Lewis said. “Yet the instructions they were given were, 'You need to fill out the whole packet.’”
Councilman John Sentz said many of the problems he’s heard about stem from the town’s development services department.
When asked if the criticism was hard medicine for town staff, he said, “I hope it is.”
“They need to understand the impact,” he went on. “I look at these people as our customers.”
He said the plight of small-business owners is a dollars and cents issue. That’s because the longer a business is kept from opening, the fewer tax dollars government sees.
In many cases, particularly when a business owner like Addiego gets confusing messages from the town, it’s not that they’re trying to do a bad job, it’s just that their not properly trained, Sentz said.
Greg Tilque, development services director, said he found the tour worthwhile.
“I think it’s always good to get a feel for points of frustration from the business community,” he said.
Tilque said a common theme he saw concerned business signs and “just making sure they understand the (submitting and approval) process.”