“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy.” It’s a saying I have no doubt you’ve heard before. Why, then, do big businesses get all the attention? Don’t get me wrong: It’s always exciting to hear about the next major retailer, chain restaurant, or manufacturer coming to town. And the fact that we attract so many of these types of businesses to our community is a testament to the strength of our local economy. But small businesses play a larger role in that economy than we may think. Studies from the Small Business Administration show that nearly two-thirds of the nation’s net new jobs over the past 15 years have come from — you guessed it — small businesses.
The hard work and creativity of our local entrepreneurs create a pathway for many to live the American dream. Our community is better when small businesses are given an environment in which they can thrive. So how are we doing as a community to support small businesses? Unfortunately, I hear all too often that instead of a smooth path, our local government puts up road blocks to new businesses by creating a process that’s hard to navigate. The city of Bloomington has made improvements: Just last year, the city updated its zoning code to make it easier to understand. One piece that’s missing, though, is to explain why we have the rules that we have. Without that piece of the puzzle, business owners only see pages and pages of regulations that are more hurdles they must jump over to succeed.
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One way to improve this process would be for the city to create a liaison position, someone whose only job is to help new business owners navigate the often-convoluted reams of government red tape to get their businesses up and running more quickly. Right now, anyone looking to open a business often has to fill out pages of paperwork and get inspections from multiple departments at the city, county, and state levels. Entrepreneurs need to feel that the city is invested in their success. Handling a prospective business owner a pile of paper to “fill out and return” doesn’t send the right message. A dedicated liaison can streamline this process and help new business owners navigate the process. The liaison can also help by educating business owners about other resources in the community, such as loan and grant programs. This type of support at the beginning stages can make a big difference and help position a new business for long-term success.
If we want to keep our economy strong and growing, we can’t just focus on attracting big businesses. We need to also need to support and invest in small cafes, niche retailers, entertainment venues, etc. These small- to mid-sized businesses make Bloomington unique. We also must create environments where these types of businesses can thrive. Places like downtown would benefit from increased lighting, better parking policies, and the basics like efficient garbage service and clearing sidewalks of snow in the winter. Places like the near-east side could benefit from increased walkability and better access to transit.
Bloomington is great for businesses of all sizes, but we can do better. Let’s change the conversation so that when people talk about starting a new business in Bloomington, they talk about how easy the process is, instead of how many hoops there are to jump through. It's an investment that will pay off in growth, innovation, and diversity of our local economy.
Central Illinois Voices is a collection of periodic Sunday essays written by community members. Boyd, of Bloomington, works for Country Financial and is a community and civic volunteer and youth sports coach.