Regulatory changes announced by the City of Columbia on Monday aim to benefit new and existing businesses by streamlining start-up processes and eliminating or reducing fees.
City officials said the goal of the new initiatives is to streamline operations, shorten wait times, provide friendlier processes for businesses and homeowners, and create a more business-friendly environment. The announcement was made at a press conference held at the War Mouth gastropub in the Cottontown district which was attended by city and county leaders as well as business representatives.
Included are changes to how the city handles grease capture costs and on-site parking, two issues that executives say have hampered restaurant startups and other small businesses for years.
“This is just the beginning. We want to encourage economic growth and we want more people in the downtown area,” Columbia Mayor Daniel J. Rickenmann said. “We can’t talk about accessible housing, affordable housing, workforce housing, employment initiatives, and investment growth if we don’t address the issues that are holding us back.
- Eliminate water and sewer change-of-use fees. Business owners will no longer be charged capacity fees when a commercial property is redeveloped.
- Simplify the application process for new commercial licenses and renewals. Individual or corporate tax returns will no longer need to be submitted to apply for or renew a business license. Officials also estimate that the entire licensing process will be online by the fourth quarter of this year.
- Provide additional flexibility and financial assistance for fat capture costs. City staff will work with a project’s engineer, architect, or plumber to approve the best grease capture needs for the specific project, whether it’s a grease trap, a grease interceptor or other options. The city will also offer a repayable loan program that will offset half of a project’s grease capture costs up to $10,000.
- Eliminate on-site parking requirements for buildings 7,500 square feet or less. Businesses occupying buildings of this size will no longer have to provide on-site parking or rent off-site parking to receive an occupancy permit. However, parking will be mandatory for residential buildings.
- Facilitate business growth. Businesses will no longer have to remove existing parking spaces in order to meet landscape requirements for redevelopment.
- Establish an economic development program focused on attracting new investment and supporting small businesses in their growth. The city will hire full-time corporate recruiters who specialize in urban economic development recruitment through hotels, restaurants, retail and other businesses, and will also establish project managers to help local businesses to grow and guide new investors through the licensing process.
“These initiatives are great for small businesses and for all businesses in general,” said Columbia Councilman Joe Taylor. “Over a period of time, we have unwittingly created these barriers for businesses to start here, and it’s a huge step for us to have positive momentum going forward.”
Taylor said initiatives alone for water and sewer change-of-use fees, parking requirements and grease traps could on average eliminate between $30,000 and $125,000 of “roadblocks.” expensive” for companies trying to get started in Colombia.
Taylor, also a property developer and former SC commerce secretary, has long advocated for measures to streamline business openings. He said investors and start-ups looking to redevelop and repurpose older buildings in areas such as Five Points and Main Street will particularly benefit from the elimination of water-use change fees and sewers.
“For someone trying to turn an old furniture store, for example, into a trendy new restaurant, sometimes they were looking at a $35,000 or $40,000 fee just for the change in use, and that could be a business killer,” Taylor said. “I think this change will physically have a positive impact on the city.”
He also identified other steps the city should take to encourage further development.
“Now that these destructive costs have been resolved, we only need to expedite the permitting process and fix our uncompetitive commercial ownership rate to position Columbia to be the next great success story in the south,” did he declare.
According to Matt Kennell, president and CEO of Main Street District, a downtown development and marketing organization, the changes to grease trap management and parking requirements will go a long way to helping businesses.
“Grease trap issues on multiple occasions have been a roadblock for those wanting to start a restaurant, so taking this on a case-by-case basis instead of a one-size-fits-all approach is going to be good,” Kennell says. “This initiative, along with changing parking requirements for businesses 7,500 square feet or less, will help many small businesses and restaurants in the Main Street District. This comprehensive approach to being business-friendly is going to be of great help to businesses in the region for many years to come.