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How to Jump Start Escondido's Economy

as published in the North County Times

by Vince Vasquez

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed recently stated his desire to fix the city's business climate. To foster greater job growth and private investment today, City Hall will have to focus greater attention on the needs of small business owners.

When San Diego County small-business owners were asked in a recent 2010 survey to identify their top business needs, poll respondents indicated a healthier local economy (91 percent), cutting business taxes (87 percent) and streamlining regulations and bureaucracy (86 percent). Escondido officials may have few tax cuts to offer, but new business-friendly regulatory reforms can be implemented, fostering job growth in a city that has suffered a higher unemployment rate than the countywide average. Other municipalities show us how this process should begin.

For starters, why not give small-business owners a central role in cutting red tape? From 1993-2000, special public hearings known as "Regulatory Relief Days" were held in the city of San Diego, giving residents and business owners an opportunity to share their horror stories with municipal bureaucracy. Critically, the popular program institutionalized the routine annual review and repealing of onerous and obsolete city regulations.

With bipartisan support, Regulatory Relief Days led to the elimination of more than 40 obsolete regulations, such as the ban on child care centers in residentially zoned areas, and reduced the time to get a business permit by more than half.

How about stimulating sales activity and construction job growth with a short-term waiver of permits and inspection fees for common home renovation projects? Cities such as Anaheim, Corona and West Sacramento have in recent years held "home improvement holidays" offering a cost-effective way to spur new economic activity that is otherwise hampered by budget cuts, long waits and exorbitant surcharges.

In June 2009, Denver held a two-week "Home Renovation Bonanza," giving owners of single-family homes and duplexes free, issued-on-the-spot permits for nine major property improvements, including basic interior remodeling chores, roof repair and solar panel installation. In all, 1,234 permits were pulled by property owners, costing the city $85,773 in lost permit fee revenue but generating $6.28 million in home improvements that created a wealth of construction jobs for independent contractors.

Finally, targeted relief should be considered for Escondido's home-based businesses (HBBs), a low-profile commercial sector that comprises nearly half of all businesses in America. Giving a helping hand to HBBs can produce results quickly and cost-effectively. In the early 1990s, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors advanced an aggressive nine-point work agenda for home-based businesses, which included organizing annual workshops and conferences for HBBs, advocating for zoning ordinance reforms and developing a home-based business guide. Why not Escondido?

Fostering a healthier business climate is a laudable goal that every elected official should prioritize. In these difficult economic times, Mayor Abed and the Escondido City Council should seize the initiative, and set an example for all others to follow.