Making sense of Philly's business maze

The Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices is us­ing the web and loc­al dir­ect­ors to help spur busi­ness in a no­tori­ously un­friendly busi­ness cul­ture.

Even as Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s has grown in pop­ular­ity and prestige over the years, vis­it­ors to the hip eat­ery and mu­sic ven­ue couldn’t be blamed for not­ing the lack of sur­round­ing scenery.

Most glar­ing were the va­cant and (some­times) boarded up win­dows of 204-206 E. Gir­ard, loc­ated just across the street from the tav­ern’s spa­cious din­ing room win­dows.

Today, pat­rons in­stead look upon the styl­ish and su­per en­vir­on­ment­ally kosh­er headquar­ters of Yikes Inc., a Web de­vel­op­ment com­pany.

And, ac­cord­ing to Yikes co-founder Tracy Levesque, that renov­a­tion and the jobs that come with it might nev­er have been if it wer­en’t for the help­ing hand of the city’s Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices.

Levesque said the city agency was a huge help when it came to se­cur­ing the funds needed to trans­form their new build­ing from a wa­ter-dam­aged mess in­to a new and sus­tain­able of­fice space.

“I tell oth­er small busi­nesses about it,” she said. “It’s hard for [the Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices] to get word out about their ser­vices, but they are just great.”

It’s stor­ies and res­ults like those the agency wants hear more of as they launch new ini­ti­at­ives aimed at mak­ing do­ing busi­ness here easi­er.

Do­ing what they can

Start­ing and sus­tain­ing a small busi­ness in a big city like Phil­adelphia can be com­plic­ated.

There’s plenty of pa­per­work to com­plete just to leg­ally op­er­ate in the city.

Also, it’s long been a com­plaint that busi­nesses are faced with be­ing taxed twice as they need to pay a tax on gross re­ceipts and the city’s busi­ness priv­ilege tax.

But, the city’s Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices is ready to com­bat any con­fu­sion and help sup­port small busi­ness own­ers.

The of­fice is launch­ing a new Web site that ex­pands the ser­vices offered and helps busi­ness own­ers or­gan­ize in­form­a­tion and keep track of their deal­ings with the city.

To help grow busi­nesses, Kev­in Dow, chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer of the city’s Com­merce De­part­ment, said a new Web portal — which will launch in Septem­ber at www.busi­ — will al­low each busi­ness own­er to cre­ate a per­son­al­ized ac­count to or­gan­ize their pa­per­work.

A key as­pect will be what he called a “wiz­ard” fea­ture, an ele­ment that lets would-be en­tre­pren­eurs se­lect the type of busi­ness they are hop­ing to bring to the city and find out the steps they need to take to get it done.

“It will kind of cre­ate a home page for you,” said Dow. “Busi­nesses can cre­ate their own ac­count and it will help or­gan­ize their pa­per­work.”

Dow said that, while the is­sue of how the city taxes busi­ness own­ers may be out of his hands, his agency helps in oth­er ways. 

“We re­cog­nize the tax struc­ture isn’t as con­du­cive as we’d like,” said Dow. “But, we fo­cus on what ser­vices they get for those taxes.”

“If we can make [start­ing a busi­ness] an easi­er pro­cess, busi­ness own­ers might be more com­fort­able in the City of Phil­adelphia,” he con­tin­ued.

Start ups and growth

Bring­ing new small busi­nesses — and help­ing those here to grow — is a ma­jor fo­cus of the Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices, said Dow. The city needs these types of busi­nesses if it’s go­ing to grow as a thriv­ing urb­an cen­ter, he said.

“Gov­ern­ment doesn’t cre­ate jobs,” he said. “Busi­nesses do.”

Dow said his of­fice works with lend­ing firms to se­cure cap­it­al for start­ing and strug­gling busi­nesses, helps busi­nesses ac­quire va­cant prop­er­ties for ex­pan­sion, and helps own­ers find tax-in­cent­ive pro­grams in or­der to save some money.

Loc­ally, the of­fice is help­ing the New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Corp. to se­cure a va­cant prop­erty at 2721 Ruth St.

Sandy Salzman, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the NK­CDC, said the prop­erty has been a con­cern for some time. Last year, be­cause of dam­age to some of struc­tures, roughly two-thirds of the build­ings on the prop­erty were de­mol­ished by the city. All that re­mains is a con­crete build­ing that she said could be used as an art work­shop for met­al work or something sim­il­ar.

“The Com­merce De­part­ment has been really help­ful,” she said last week. “With a little luck, we will get that build­ing and turn the neigh­bor­hood around.” 

“It’s just really sad,” she said. “The build­ing just sits there de­teri­or­at­ing.”

A loc­al fo­cus

To help sup­port loc­al busi­nesses, the Of­fice of Busi­ness Ser­vices di­vides the city in­to ser­vice areas based on ZIP codes, which are then man­aged by a busi­ness ser­vices man­ager.

Jericho Evans works as the ser­vices man­ager in Brides­burg, parts of Port Rich­mond and areas of North Philly.

Evans said he works dir­ectly with loc­al busi­nesses to en­sure they can clear the many hurdles and red tape of City Hall that can con­fuse and frus­trate those hop­ing to start a busi­ness.

“Lots of busi­nesses have prob­lems with L&I,” he said, re­fer­ring to the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tions. “That unit is just so large; we try to help nav­ig­ate that.”

Re­cently, he’s worked with own­er Tom Burke of Wall Street Sys­tems Truck­ing Com­pany and Burke Plumb­ing and Heat­ing at 4055 Rich­mond St. to handle some is­sues with L&I.

Evans said the busi­ness, which em­ploys between 10 to 20 people, had con­cerns so com­plic­ated that its own­ers con­sidered leav­ing the city.

That threat is over, and while Burke said last week he didn’t want to talk about the is­sue be­cause he’s not yet fin­ished with the ne­ces­sary pa­per­work, Evans said the busi­ness is now in com­plete com­pli­ance and should have no fear of hav­ing to leave the city.

“We had a con­ver­sa­tion with the busi­ness own­er, and it was ac­tu­ally the fault of L&I,” said Evans.

Dow said that without em­ploy­ees like Evans — the city is sep­ar­ated between about sev­en man­agers work­ing dir­ectly with small busi­nesses — the of­fice wouldn’t be as “act­ive and re­act­ive” to the needs of busi­ness.

“They get to know the busi­nesses out there,” he said. “We want to grow all of them.”

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­ 

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