Figuring out Council Policy 900-12

By: Vilavanh Sanginthirath, CEO of Innovations City

After 17 years, small business owners are working directly with the City to create the right kinds of supports to help us grow. Spoiler alert: it’s how the City can invest $57,000 in small businesses instead of a large grocery chain, so keep reading…

Engaged. Excited. Empowered.

Those were some of my emotions as I was listening to each speaker and waiting for my turn to make public comments at the last City Council meeting on this topic. Or, for the fact-checkers out there, the city council’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations committee – ED&IR, for those in the know.

Let’s get the technical details out of the way: the Council Policy 900-12 was enacted in 1993, and last updated in 2001. Since then some portions have been discontinued or deemed ineffective. A slightly more modern approach to support San Diego’s innovative landscape has been long overdue to support our small business community and provide inclusive economic growth for all San Diegans. Inclusive being a not-so-innocent, critical word that is regularly written into – if not yet smoothly – been incorporated into the updated policy.

Or, as I see it: our City needs Business for Good to help it understand how to work with minority-, veteran- and women-owned small businesses.

The cynic in me believes this would have happened without the not-so-subtle wakeup call from the Office of the Auditor… While the total set of tools the City can use to support it is pretty comprehensive, this presentation was only about updating the section of Policy 900-12 that deals with the Business and Industry Incentive Program (simply put, the money the city can give to help businesses).

The cold hard facts now out of the way, let’s get back to the important issue: my feelings.

Engaged

I know first hand what it currently takes to try and access these existing programs. And it hasn’t been easy. The money and resources that are allocated to these programs are very limited, so it’s important that it goes to the right businesses and not just to those whom it’s easiest to jump through hoops faster. The current process is best for businesses who have the time and resources to go through the extenuating application process and provide ongoing documentation. By definition, the program has rarely reached its intended target audience of small businesses who need that nudge and help to grow – in other words, not Vons

Excited

By showing up today, I knew that I’d get to compare and contrast the policy. Will it actually reflect what Business for Good members are  saying?

Now that the City is looking at how it spends a limited pool of money on support to the business community, it was important that I hammer home the idea that it has to prioritize businesses like mine.  My company was built on the idea that diversity breeds innovation; there are many more small businesses and entrepreneurs who contribute positively to San Diego’s quality of life that need to be supported through this program. That means the City has to figure out some preferential treatment to women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses who provide places where we can shop, eat and play.

Empowered

I was empowered to speak upon the issues on behalf of those small businesses and entrepreneurs right here in San Diego who feel disenfranchised from a program that was meant to serve (and failed) to reach us – but managed to give $57,000 to a San Francisco-based corporate chain, with 2,200 stores in 33 states

Here’s a sampling of the ideas that my peer Business For Good member Lauren & I shared:

  • More than 90% of San Diego employees work for small businesses, but the current incentives laid out are by and large not accessible to those businesses
  • The proposed $10,000-$100,000 incentive range is a drop in the bucket of of a business that has a large enough budget to hire 25 people or raise $5 million in one year. This “incentive” won’t alter its behavior
  • Let’s think outside of our San Diego-specific “innovation economy” triad of biotech, telecom, and tourism when we define “base sector firms,” which is a current requirement for this program.  We have other financial programs and tools available to attract and incentivize these firms, so let’s use this program to prioritize small businesses that help us achieve our inclusive growth goals
  • Investing in outreach, supports, and hand-holding to help small businesses navigate the ins-and-outs of working with a local government. Each of the “workforce, sustainability and economic” bullets listed throughout 3 pages of the City’s Business Incentive Workplan is a bureaucratic nightmare for a small business to navigate and document. It’s incumbent on the City to know its small business owner’s needs, identify the relevant programs, and make it as easy as possible to qualify
  • Let’s build a mandatory progress report to update the constituents of San Diego every year on how the City is doing to meet this program’s goals

My emotions are hopeful. Business for Good members will benefit from an updated program that’s focused on proving what inclusive economic growth looks like. I suggest that small business owners who are ready to transform outdated processes connect with us at Business For Good and engage in the conversations driving good policies to support our San Diego small business community.

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