New Boise program offers boost for Downtown, relief for entrepreneurs

The Downtown Occupancy Assistance program eases the permit process and has big potential for small businesses

sberg@idahostatesman.comJune 10, 2014 

  • GRAND OPENING

    Boise Art Glass and Fire Fusion Studio will kick off the grand opening of its new Downtown Boise home Thursday.

    The event includes free admission, demonstrations, live music and food catered by Barbacoa and Le Crepe. There will be make-your-own classes and discounts on all products.

    The celebration will start at 5 p.m. at 1124 W. Front St., Boise. Call 345-1825 to sign up for classes or for more information on the grand opening.

The DOA program didn't sound like a very big deal when Boise Mayor Dave Bieter announced it April 15 at the annual State of Downtown Boise breakfast.

Most people in the audience barely looked up from their food when Bieter said the new program would help businesses carve out a new home or build a bigger one in the city's core.

The month since that announcement hasn't brought much street buzz about Downtown Occupancy Assistance, either.

But for people looking to open businesses - especially small firms - in Downtown Boise, the program has huge potential. That's because it takes on the thing that scares small-business owners the most: the municipal permitting process.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Plenty of business owners want to be part of Downtown Boise, but can't afford top-notch space in its core. So they do what Boise Art Glass owner Filip Vogelpohl did: rehab an older building just outside the core.

Vogelpohl just finished moving his shop from the corner of 6th and Myrtle streets to 12th and Front streets. The building he moved into needed work. He was frustrated by how much money and time it took to meet building codes and get a permit to open the new shop.

Vogelpohl wants the city to distinguish between big businesses and small businesses when it comes to the cost of meeting building codes.

"Maybe they could take into consideration that a small-business owner doesn't have an endless supply of money to bring all this stuff to new code. The cost is a huge thing when it comes to a small business," he said. "That makes it hard for small businesses to really take part in the development of Downtown Boise."

Sometimes, the permit process is so daunting that would-be businesspeople give up on their idea.

"Some of these small-business owners, they'll get a stack of 15 papers, and it terrifies them before they look through them," said Adele Schaffeld-Griffin, a planning expert for the city who designed the program.

If the program had been in place when Vogelpohl was remodeling his company's new home, it might have helped him complete the move. The complications he ran into are exactly what Schaffeld-Griffin wants to help solve.

"That's good that they're heading in that direction," Vogelpohl said. "That's awesome."

ONE-STOP SHOP

At its base, Downtown Occupancy Assistance is public outreach, Schaffeld-Griffin said.

"The very first thing I want everybody to know is that I'm here to help them," she said. "We can't design it for them, but we can certainly do what we can to help be the solution."

The program's goal is to make it easier, faster and cheaper for Downtown businesses to get going or move to a new location. Help starts with what Schaffeld-Griffin calls "preproject research." Whether a company is just getting started or looking for a new home, she said, picking the right building and location are crucial.

"One may cost you a ton of money to go in. One may cost you hardly anything at all," she said. "Sometimes, just helping them know the expectations going into the project can help them a ton on the forefront."

Next comes the permitting process. For the simplest applications, Schaffeld-Griffin developed what she called a "one-stop shop." An inspector stops by a business and works with the owner to complete forms, inspect the space, process payments for permit fees and make sure things are up to snuff. Then, the inspector goes back to City Hall, processes all the paperwork and mails the business a certificate of occupancy.

The one-stop shop won't work for all businesses and moves. For example, it's not for businesses that are making physical changes to a building.

But for Kristen Jackson, owner of Lit & Co., the one-stop shop was perfect for her store on 8th and Broad streets. Jackson said she went to City Hall on a Thursday in April to start the permitting process. The next Monday, she said, an inspector came to her new location, worked through some details and gave her a permit that day.

"I was shocked," Jackson said. "I wish that every city would adopt it."

WIGGLE ROOM

Phased-in code requirements are a tool Schaffeld-Griffin can use to help businesses that are rehabbing an old space. Instead of making all the necessary improvements before moving, she said, business owners can do them over a period of time, as long as they have an approved plan in place and they're staying on track.

For example, Boise's code requires stairs to have a minimum 11-inch horizontal run for a 7-inch rise. Steeper existing stairs could be allowed in older buildings, Schaffeld-Griffin said, as long as inspectors believe they're safe.

"We're not talking about just getting these businesses occupied, but we're also talking about business retention and expansion," Schaffeld-Griffin said. "If you move into a tenant space and you had an easy, smooth time opening your business, when you're ready to expand or locate maybe to a different facility, you're not going to hesitate twice doing it. Now, if the process was awful and you're terrified to do it again, you're not going to."

BUSINESSES RECEPTIVE

Jeremy Barber, project manager for general contractor HC Co., said Schaffeld-Griffin has been "more considerate of the effort it takes to get a project going" than most of the permit writers he's encountered. He started working with her in March, when he applied to remodel the former Opa on 8th Street into a bar-restaurant, Juniper. He received his permit April 30.

"I'm not actually aware of the project that she's working on, what she's doing to make it better, but I would just say her attitude in general is that she's here to help owners and contractors get the project going faster," Barber said.

Steve Welsh, who runs a photo gallery next to Vogelpohl's new shop, said Boise's building department has been moving in the right direction with regard to the difficulty, cost and time of its permitting process. For example, the city's urban renewal district used to require costly streetscape improvements for new businesses. No longer.

That's not to say Welsh thinks Boise's planners are flawless. He wants more public parking spaces Downtown, and he thinks it's wrong that Boise observes an international building code, which means businesses here have to abide by most of the same building requirements that govern developments in New York or San Francisco.

"Which definitely adds to the expense," Welsh said.

Boise has authority to change only some aspects of the international code, which has been in effect here since Jan. 1, 2003, said Jason Blais, who works in Boise's building department.

Each time a new international code is published, Blais said, the state adopts its own version, which each city then must follow. The state sometimes chooses not to adopt certain portions of the code. Any person may suggest a change at the state or local level, Blais said, but those local adjustments must be at least as strict as the state's version.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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