Jane O'Hara brimmed with entrepreneurial spirit, but Oakland's bureaucracy daunted her. Then, while surfing around the city's web site, she came upon the Oakland Business Assistance Center, a one-stop shop for people who want to open their own business. So she fired off an e-mail outlining her proposal for a gluten-free bakery in Oakland. To her surprise, she got quick results.
"I was completely overwhelmed," she told Town Business. "They literally gave me a map of what to do and who to see. They honestly made what would have been a complicated process much easier for me."
The center's director Michael McPherson and staffer Stacey Hogan showed O'Hara how to navigate what can be a dizzying process for establishing a new business, from finding the right location to acquiring a seller's permit from the state Board of Equalization. The roadmap they supplied also helped her obtain a health permit from Alameda County and decipher Oakland's own bureaucratic process. This Friday, May 28, O'Hara will host the grand opening of Good Chemistry Baking at 3249 Grand Avenue, not far from the Grand Lake Theater.
Since the Oakland Business Assistance Center opened last July, it has served about 2,300 people, McPherson said during a recent interview. "We're extremely pleased with the reception we've gotten from the community," he said. "They've really embraced us."
Oakland is one of a few cities in the state with a one-stop business assistance center. It offers help to all types of small businesses, from pushcarts to restaurants and home-based child-care centers to nonprofits. About 60 percent of its customers are people like O'Hara who want to open a small business for the first time. The other 40 percent are existing business owners who have "hit that brick wall and are either looking to generate more business or are trying to find ways to stay in business."
McPherson was the executive director of the nonprofit Oakland Business Development Corporation before coming out of retirement in 2008 to launch the city-run center. The driving force behind the development of the center was Gregory Hunter, deputy director of the city's Community and Economic Development Agency. And the key to its success is the personal attention McPherson and Hogan give to small business owners who walk through the door. Each customer spends at least one hour in a private meeting with one of them, figuring out what steps they need to take. And the pair help small business owners solve problems when they get the run-around from city departments.
After realizing they were answering many of the same questions repeatedly, McPherson said he and Hogan decided to create flowcharts for the most common types of new businesses. The most common requests they've received in the past year are about restaurants; nonprofits; retail stores; farmers' markets; light manufacturing; construction businesses; child-care centers; import and export businesses; and pushcart and mobile food vendors. The center also gets inquiries about opening medical cannabis dispensaries, but has not created a flowchart for that because the city caps the number of such operations and the waiting list is huge.
Hunter said they're thinking about taking on other staffers to make things even easier for business owners. They also plan to conduct customer surveys every six months. "We don't want to run into a situation where we put a lot of effort into the program and it's not meeting its intended need," he said. The last survey found that 94 percent of customers said center staff were courteous; 88 percent said they responded to requests in a "timely manner;" and 78 percent reported being "very satisfied."
Berkeley's Pot Club Solution
Remember the Berkeley Patients Group, the medical cannabis dispensary that planned to move into the old Scharffen Berger chocolate building? The patients' group had run into stiff opposition because its new location would be close to a private school and a child-care center. But the City of Berkeley was prepared to okay the move because the city council had mistakenly agreed to allow pot clubs to set up shop next to private schools.
Well, in recent weeks, the controversy surrounding the Berkeley Patients Group dissipated because Wareham Development, the owners of Aquatic Park business center, which houses the child-care center, decided to buy the Scharffen Berger building. Wareham had been considering suing the city over the pot club's move because it didn't think a dispensary was suitable for the corner of Seventh Street and Heinz Avenue, which it considers a gateway to the city. "We've never been particularly fond of litigation," said Chris Barlow, a partner at Wareham, explaining why they decided to buy the building instead of suing. "And it was pretty clear that the city council wasn't going to do anything. So we felt we would take things into our own hands."
Blocking the club's move was made easier by the fact that it had not yet signed a lease. Dispensary spokesman Brad Senesac said they didn't want to sign a lease until they had received a city permit because they had lost a "couple of hundred thousand dollars" in the past five years after they signed leases only to learn later that they couldn't get a permit because of too much local opposition. For now, the Berkeley Patients Group plans to make improvements at its longtime location at Ashby Avenue and Grayson Street, while it continues to look for a larger facility. The group wants a building big enough so that it can grow marijuana onsite, plus open a cafe that would feature cannabis baked goods.
As for the old Scharffen Berger building, Barlow said Wareham has not yet decided what it will do with it. And the city council? It's appointed a task force to consider a host of changes to Berkeley medical marijuana regulations for the fall ballot.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that Oakland's Business Assistance Center was the brainchild of Gregory Hunter. Hunter was the driving force behind the development of the center, but it originated from Mayor Ron Dellums' Small Business Task Force and was carried forward by City Council President Jane Brunner.