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KC eyes ways to attract and keep businesses

City Hall isn’t Gates Bar-B-Q, but city bureaucrats should project more of that local eatery’s famous “Hi, may I help you?” customer service vibe.

That’s a key takeaway from the Kansas City Council’s six-month study of how to improve business recruitment and retention, especially for small businesses.

“We need to be the friendliest city to do business with,” said Councilman Scott Taylor, who chaired the special committee on small businesses. “Cut the red tape.”

The committee will release a report with more than 50 recommendations in the next few weeks. But Taylor said many recommendations are already in process, and he’s determined the report won’t sit on a shelf.

“We will continue to dog this,” he said. “I can’t stand it when reports come out and then you wait for the implementation.”

The committee, which also included council members Scott Wagner, Jermaine Reed and Cindy Circo, held 17 public hearings and heard from more than 100 business owners with suggestions to simplify city regulations and licensing requirements.

The final public hearing, held Thursday, featured local businesses known for their customer service expertise, including Gates, Spin Pizza, the Roasterie and CFM Distributors, which provides heating and cooling equipment.

Company representatives urged the city to create an environment where poor service isn’t tolerated.

Tom Roberts, president of CFM Distributors, applauded the city’s efforts in recent years, including creation in 2009 of a BizCare office across from City Hall to assist small-business startups.

But Roberts said other cities he’s dealt with have smooth, seamless operations to promote business, and Kansas City needs to do more.

“The BizCare office is fabulous, but we need to evolve to Kansas City Care, and put the sign on this building (City Hall),” he told the committee.

Taylor acknowledged that many entrepreneurs and businesses have never heard of BizCare and don’t know about its services. He agreed it needs to evolve from just providing information to actually serving as the one-stop shop for regulatory approvals.

Besides customer service improvements, the committee identified other strategies to promote small businesses:

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Access to capital

. Many banks aren’t lending, and entrepreneurs are struggling. So the committee, along with other community groups, persuaded Justine Petersen, one of the nation’s most prominent microlenders, to come into the Kansas City market. It does business counseling and is expected to provide loans averaging $10,000.

“They’re here and ready to go,” Taylor said.

The city also has identified a larger loan fund through the Small Business Administration and is pursuing other options to get businesses the investment capital they need.

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Streamlining regulations

. The city is creating a “business process management team” to get department managers out of their silos and working together to ease the bureaucratic maze. Rick Usher, assistant to the city manager, said some departments had thought they didn’t have anything to do with small business, but the recommendations touch virtually every department.

“We want businesses to locate in Kansas City and grow,” Taylor said. “We want to be a partner with those businesses by making our processes as quick and efficient as possible.”

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Technology improvements

. The city created an online platform to get feedback from small businesses and is also looking at ways to make many of its forms and requirements available online. “There’s no reason we can’t do a lot of these functions online so people don’t have to come down to City Hall,” Taylor said.

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