Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski recently heard from a business owner attempting to open medical clinics in three communities. It took that business owner one week to get approval in Greenfield, a month in West Allis, and after three months, he was still navigating the system in Milwaukee and looking for other options.
It was a story Witkowski and other elected officials have heard often, and one they believe has cost the city business. Of course, getting things done in a larger municipality like Milwaukee is always going to be more difficult than a smaller one, but New York City has successfully multiplied the number of small businesses opening there by streamlining its processes.
By taking a page from New York’s book, Witkowski and Art Dahlberg, commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services, are working with the Health, City Development, Neighborhood Services, Licenses, Public Works and Information Technology departments to create a Local Business Action Team.
These departments are already involved in permits, licenses, inspections and approvals before a business can open. By working together more effectively, Witkowski is hopeful the process can become more succinct for future business owners.
“The clear message that I heard from area business leaders is that change is needed,” Witkowski said. “If we are serious about creating jobs and economic development to address our poverty problem, we must improve the way we interact with and regulate small businesses.”
In early September, the Department of City Development received a $50,000 grant to create a “Milwaukee Business Navigator” web portal, which will have comprehensive information about local and state business regulations, programs and assistance.
Other changes planned include development of a single-inspection occupancy approval process and the ability for business owners to submit building plans online and then check status updates online.
The city’s Development Center will now be staffed by members of the city’s various departments so it is a true one-stop shop for business owners’ questions. Witkowski said that was the original intent of the center when it was developed in the early 2000s, but there was never money in the budget to staff it.
“If we’re serious about making Milwaukee a great place to do business, it’s important to spend the money to complete the plan,” Witkowski said.
Witkowski believes many of these changes will begin taking shape within the next six months; however, some changes have already been made, including ending the requirement to have a permit to close a business or to take a photo in the city.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said for some business owners these changes will save 10 minutes and for others, the change will be 10 days.
“We want to eliminate the silos and the frustration – as much as we want to see you in City Hall, we know that people don’t want to spend their time at City Hall,” Barrett said. “This is going to make it easier for business to work with the city. And ultimately, it’s going to create jobs and grow our tax base.”