The Chance to Work Tops Chicago Entrepreneurs’ Holiday Wish List

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Beth Milnikel of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago

 

By Elizabeth Milnikel

Guest columnist

What do Chicago’s entrepreneurs want for Christmas?

That is the question posed by the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship to small businesses throughout the city. Located at the University of Chicago Law School, the IJ Clinic serves low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs across the city who need legal assistance but cannot afford it.

In many cases, all Chicago entrepreneurs want for Christmas is the chance to earn an honest living doing what they  love. Currently, there are myriad regulations on the books that make it difficult—sometimes even impossible—for people to start new enterprises or compete against entrenched special interests.

Consider the following:

— Nida Rodriguez of The Slide Ride wants to be able to operate her food truck and serve hungry customers without being marginalized by Chicago officials. She would like the law to be changed to allow her to operate after 10 p.m. to serve customers after many restaurants close and to operate in designated spots in popular areas instead of being banned  whenever a restaurant is within 200 feet.

— Jim Mullen of Mullen Foods, who was paralyzed during his career as a police officer, has this wish:  “One thing I would like to clarify with the city or learn how to work with them is that the disadvantaged business or disabled business enterprises be considered on par with a minority and women owned companies. There are different rules for us and I don’t think it promotes all that much opportunity. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is over 75 percent and much higher than minority businesses or women owned businesses. Seems to me they should all be on the same playing field.”

— Jimmie Williams of Just Us Lawn Care said: “I would suggest to Mayor Emanuel to consider the fact that raising the prices of city stickers, taxes, and the overall cost of doing business with the city has a crippling effect on small businesses with little to no capital.  As we know, small businesses are the foundation of America. We hold vital importance in the city of Chicago because we are the link to building families and communities. It’s no secret that large corporations are leaving the city of Chicago. Therefore, it is imperative that the city invest more resources into small businesses for the sake of its survival.”

— Several clients wish the city would streamline its business license categories—over 70 different license types means businesses get caught up dealing with red-tape instead of focusing of running their businesses and creating jobs. They also wish that the city looked to local entrepreneurs and small-business owners as a resource for creating good and relevant policy.

— Entrepreneurs on a tight budget wish the city didn’t require businesses to pay a $250 fee plus the cost of hiring a registered sign erector just to paint their business name on their storefront window or entry door. That’s hundreds of dollars that a business could spend on serving its customers.

— Megan Marshall of Lango of Chicago South Side said: “I wish the city would make it easier for small businesses to work with Chicago Public Schools by keeping a list of companies that offer enrichment activities, for example.” Marshall also  expressed a common wish that local governments, which are often big customers for small businesses, start to pay their vendors on time.

— Leaders in the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce mentioned that local restaurant entrepreneurs often struggle with the regulation of sidewalk cafes. To serve customers al fresco, restaurants need to go through a lengthy, convoluted process,  culminating in a vote on the café permit by the whole City Council.  They wish for a quicker, streamlined sidewalk café process.

— One client asks the city to let business owners change their addresses without getting entirely new business licenses.   When she wanted to move her office, the city told her she would need a new 2-year license and could not apply the money she had already spent on her current license.

— Reforming the health code and the health inspection process could benefit the many entrepreneurs who make up Chicago’s vibrant food scene. The Commissioner of the Health Department, Bechara Choucair, has already started looking into these issues. The IJ Clinic is happy to see this and encourages the department to make the sorts of changes that will help entrepreneurs. Small food businesses that use shared kitchens wish they could hire qualified chefs to work in the kitchens independently.  Right now, the city requires a business owner to be present in the kitchen at all times.

— Urban farmers got one wish granted this summer, when the city passed a law that permits farming in some neighborhoods in the city. But they wish it were legal to grow fruit and vegetables for a living on small plots in more  neighborhoods, where it would be a good use of vacant land.

— Aspiring barbers and hair stylists wish they did not have to hire experts to testify before the Zoning Board of Appeals that they will not damage the neighborhood by starting a business too close to a potential competitor.

City officials should consider taking Chicago entrepreneurs seriously by removing regulations that stifle innovation and prevent people from providing solutions to all kinds of problems. We at the IJ Clinic hope that the city takes the wishes of our entrepreneurs to heart.  Especially in tough economic times, allowing entrepreneurs to create jobs for themselves and others will be the engine to drive us into a sustained economic recovery.

Elizabeth Milnikel is the Director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School. Under Milnikel’s guidance, Chicago law students take their first steps into the practice of law by providing legal advice to lower income entrepreneurs. In 2009, she co-authored a study of legal obstacles to entrepreneurship in Chicago, Regulatory Field. Milnikel came to the IJ Clinic from the law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, where she practiced for several years with a specialty in intellectual property litigation.

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