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One small falafel for you; one giant leap for St. John’s

By: | September 6, 2011

City Hall needs to start supporting local small business, not fighting it

Hans Rollmann
To Each Their Own examines political issues impacting Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Last week’s Telegram featured a splendidly written story about a situation that’s far from splendid. And unfortunately, it’s far from uncommon either.

The piece chronicled the misadventures of two aspiring entrepreneurs trying to open a food cart on George Street. Precisely why they should have so much more trouble than all the other lackluster food carts is difficult to fathom, particularly when they’re trying to actually improve the quality and reputation of the city’s late-night street fare. The Middle Eastern food cart they’re trying to open will do a lot more than just fill the bellies of George Street revelers. It’s symbolic: of a St. John’s on the cusp of actually becoming a modern, diverse, global, multinational city.

In short, the Mohamed Ali food cart fiasco is about more than just whether or not we get to try a late-night falafel. It’s about whether City Council is capable of stewarding this city into the 21st century, and into the face of global diversity and competition, or not. And sadly, the lack of support for diverse and creative entrepreneurial small business which the city has demonstrated on repeated occasions leads us to worry that the biggest barrier to St. John’s becoming a globalized, 21st century city is not geography, nor weather, nor population, but rather the lack of vision of those governing it.

What does St. John’s think goes down on George Street on the weekend – ballet?

The ridiculousness of the Mohamed Ali food cart fiasco would be comical if it wasn’t symptomatic of such a serious problem. At every turn, and with every suggestion and effort at compromise they tried to make, the two young entrepreneurs found doors slammed in their faces. When they arranged for installation of an electrical outlet for their cart, City Hall said it would be tough to keep clear of snow. When they offered to clear the snow themselves, City Hall said no. When they offered to cover costs for powering a mobile vending lot, City Hall said that wouldn’t be fair to the other vendors. When they obtained a generator, City Hall said it would be too loud. That’s the real kicker. A generator, too loud on George Street??? What does City Hall think goes down on George Street on the weekend – ballet? I used to live five times as far from George Street as the cart would be, and I could still hear the clubs on the weekend. A generator would actually be a welcome improvement if it’d drown out the bad 90s club music that kept me awake on the weekends.

If I were them, it would be hard not to take the opposition personally. But in fact it reflects a much greater problem. Why is City Hall so opposed to small business creation in the city? Isn’t helping business grow supposed to be what they’re there for?

It’s not the first time

They’re not the only ones having troubles. Many are also familiar with local organic farmer Mark Wilson’s efforts to open an organic farm. Wilson has been farming for 30 years, and is an accredited organic inspector in both processing and fieldcrops. He’s on the national board for the Organic Federation of Canada. Yet he’s been struggling since 2008 to get the clearances and permissions to open an organic farm here.

Much of the controversy surrounded the fact part of his proposed farm involves watershed land. Yet that same land used to be a farm, and adjoining watershed land features homes, commercial ventures, rusty scrapyards and highways. Indeed, a well looked-after organic farm would actually be an improvement over much of what else is in that area; and quite safe, according to the only certified organic farm inspector in the province.

Ironically, Wilson purchased much of his equipment from another farmer who had tried to make a go of it in organic farming as well, and then decided it wasn’t worth the cost and hassle and lack of support.

Every time a creative and intelligent entrepreneur comes up with a small business idea even slightly out of the ordinary…City Hall doesn’t seem to be capable of helping to make it happen.

Regardless of the dispute over watershed use, here’s the crux of the matter: in an era where food security is front and centre in the news, one of the province’s few capable organic farmers wants to expand local organic agriculture, to the benefit of the health and economy of the province. It shouldn’t take somebody with the expertise, the desire and the plan three years of fruitless arguing to get the go ahead. Especially not in a province which claims “economic diversification” is a priority and which still features outrageous levels of unemployment.

There is a common factor here. Every time a creative and intelligent entrepreneur comes up with a small business idea even slightly out of the ordinary – something other than a bar or a hot dog cart or a shop that sells stuffed puffins – City Hall doesn’t seem to be capable of helping to make it happen.

That is not only bad for the entrepreneurs, it’s bad for the entire province. St. John’s is supposed to be the flagship of Newfoundland and Labrador, and a capital ought to exhibit its best, most ingenious, most diverse and most cutting edge. And when it’s impossible for two aspiring small business owners to do something as basic as sell falafels on George Street, there is a serious problem with what’s happening at City Hall.

The double standards must end

What’s equally enfuriating – and ominous – is the double standard in how small businesses are treated. It was a mere year ago that the mayor was waging a media war championing the right of large multi-national Fortis to bypass opposition and build itself a giant office building on the harbourfront, further blocking off the harbour. If our representatives are so in favour of bending over backward for such a dramatic change that will forever alter the character of the city, how is it possible they are unable to comprehend a way toward allowing falafels to be sold on George Street?

Now I’m not arguing for or against the Fortis shenanigans. What I’m arguing is that the double standard has to stop. Multinational corporations should not be met with a red carpet, while local small business entrepreneurs have three years of doors slammed in their faces. It doesn’t even make economic sense. Small business builds roots in the community and provides much longer-term, sustainable growth. Big business has a far greater tendency to swoop in, build big, carry off its profits out of the province and then fly away when the resources are all gone, leaving unemployment lines and the rotten empty husks of buildings behind.

If anything, the rules should be relaxed for small businesses, not multinational conglomerates. Multi-billion dollar corporations can afford to spend the money to do things by the book. It’s the small business owners who can’t afford the lawyers and the designers and the years upon years of negotiations over the smallest details, when doors are slammed in their faces. If compromises should be reached for anyone, it should be for them.

Our city officials are not elected to sit back and watch people jump through hoops for them.

This is not to say we should flippantly ignore, relax or bend rules. On the contrary, each of those rules was brought in for a very specific purpose, and they are very important; if they weren’t, they should be revoked. But when a small-business owner has a plan, and is willing to go to immense ends to make it work with City Hall, there is no reason why, with a few weeks’ discussion, it shouldn’t be possible to figure out a way to allow falafels to be sold on George Street. Our city officials are not elected to sit back and watch people jump through hoops for them. They are elected to work with our aspiring small-business community to make certain that their ideas happen.

Because in the end, it’s not going to be the skyscrapers and the corporate offices that determine whether St. John’s will become a sustainable modern international city. What determines the strength of a city is the strength of its small business: the ability of people to come up with an idea, develop it, and make it happen in their community. Ugly office buildings are already a dime a dozen in downtown St. John’s. But a falafel on George Street? Now that’s something you’d actually be hard-pressed to find. And only when City Hall is able to make the innovative happen, and not oppose small business creation the way they have thus far excelled at doing, will they truly be able to help move us into the 21st century.

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