Savannah Town Hall meeting to deal with business issues — but will the business owners show up?

My column in the Savannah Morning News has for the last decade dealt with small business issues — from endless profiles of new enterprises to the larger challenges of business in our diverse market.

For today’s column (“Will Savannah small biz owners show for town hall?”), I discuss the litany of complaints I have heard over the years about the reasons why so many see the city of Savannah as such a difficult place to launch and operate a small business. Many business owners see the city and various departments as antagonists. They do not trust that complaints will be heard and fear vindictive actions, so they refuse to go on the record with me and I think they pretty rarely make their complaints to city officials. Once owners have gotten off the ground, they generally want to be let alone.

So, as I say in the column, I’m afraid the Wednesday evening town hall (7 p.m. in the Civic Center ballroom) will be a bust. The likelihood of a bust were increased last week when the mayor called into question whether there is problem at all. Small business owners already feel beleaguered; daring them to come air their complaints in such a grand public way seems likely to backfire. In a guest post (“Of Doers and Complainers”) on The Creative Coast’s blog last week, a call for cooperation to make things better in Savannah, Johnson said in part:

The negativity about Savannah and its people are constant in some of the local media. Every time we hear or read a negative, we must find a way to counter it with a positive. Yes, we have a poverty problem, but we have a poverty reduction initiative that is recognized across the country for its collaborative approach to increasing opportunity for those in poverty to work their way out.

Savannah Red has already challenged Johnson’s post as “thin-skinned” and there are a number of critical comments following the mayor’s post. For my part, I’m trying to recall a local media source of “constant” negativity. When it comes to the small business environment here, am I negative? Or just realistic and using my column to give voice to the constant complaints I hear?

I would also note that the mayor’s the need to defend the city is not necessarily a wrong move — as long as its accompanied by a frank and honest acceptance of shortcomings where we need improvement. I’ll confess to feeling a little isolated here, because I started screaming (as much as one can in a column like mine, with my personality) over four years ago about the precarious economy. As things got worse, my screaming got louder, but area leaders (public and private) just kept up their twin rhetorical courses: defend their responses to the recession and irrationally assuring us that things weren’t really so bad. Sometimes one has to point out negatives before any positive changes can be made. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

As I note in my column, the Savannah metro area is still down about 14,000 jobs from 2007, with literally no improvement in the jobs base or the unemployment rate over the past year. (That indicates declining workforce participation, since the population is also increasing.)

Last week I swapped a number of emails with a city official and also have received a few interesting responses to today’s column. In order to create a better environment for small businesses, I’ll make the following concrete suggestions:

  • encourage the Downtown Business Association, the Savannah Economic Development Authority, and the Chamber of Commerce to speak in detail — and with extreme candor — on behalf of the business community at this week’s town hall.
  • make sure everyone involved in inspections and permitting new businesses understands that the city’s role is to facilitate the timely and successful launch businesses, not to view new businesses and their owners as antagonists.
  • look harder at laws and ordinances that owners believe inhibit business.
  • pass the Unified Zoning Ordinance.
  • establish an anonymous complaint line or a 3rd party go-between so that business owners can have some anonymity when lodging complaints.
  • set up some sort of business focus group at least once a year that invites new and existing owners to talk candidly.
  • get serious about parking in the downtown area by maximizing the number of on-street spaces and providing signage that directs drivers to public garages.

Of course, none of these suggestions will do any good at all if the city strikes a defensive posture and just starts arguing about everything that the city is doing. Obviously, if we look at the job numbers, it’s hard for the city of Savannah, any other municipality, or any of local economic development organization to make the argument that they’re doing all they can to foster a positive business environment.

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