‘Character of our town’: Berkeley small businesses face pressure from large businesses, rising rent costs

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

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Small businesses make up 97 percent of all businesses in Berkeley. These Berkeley businesses, however, face several challenges, from competition with large businesses to rising rent costs, as addressed by Tuesday’s City Council special meeting.

The city’s Office of Economic Development, or OED, presented to the council a set of proposals to promote small businesses. OED developed these findings through outreach to small businesses throughout the city. The proposals include increasing support for businesses navigating the permitting process and modifying the zoning ordinance to support local businesses.

According to OED, small businesses — meaning those that employ 50 employees or fewer — also account for 41 percent of all jobs in the city.

The council expressed support for the protection of small businesses and unanimously voted to adopt an administrative strategic plan in the special meeting.

“The small businesses in Berkeley define the character of our town,” Councilmember Susan Wengraf said at the meeting. “We really need to figure out how to support them because they’re struggling.”

In OED’s presentation, city Director of Economic Development Jordan Klein highlighted three primary issues that small businesses are currently facing: city engagement, neighborhood conditions and business costs. In addition to pressure from the Bay Area housing crisis, small businesses also face competition from the internet and larger stores.

“We can combat the inaccurate perception that Berkeley is hostile to small businesses,” Klein said at the meeting.

Other council members, including Councilmember Lori Droste, voiced their support for OED’s efforts to promote small businesses. Droste encouraged Berkeley residents to shop at local businesses rather than online in order to contribute to the community.

Berkeley resident Kelly Hammargren said during public comment that she was surprised OED and the council did not discuss the cost of rent for small businesses. Councilmember Kriss Worthington also voiced his disappointment about the absence of discussion of parking issues that affect private businesses.

Klein added that OED is looking to make changes that align with the newly adopted Berkeley Strategic Plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year, such as improving outreach and communication with small businesses.

The strategic plan, which was adopted at the meeting, outlines various administrative priorities for city staff, such as the implementation of transitional housing and supportive services for small businesses.

“I think (the plan) will help us to clearly articulate our goals and our priorities in one place, at one time,” City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said at the meeting.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín, along with several council members, expressed optimism about the comprehensive nature of the plan and gratitude to Williams-Ridley for her leadership. At the meeting, Droste called the plan “ambitious,” Councilmember Ben Bartlett referred to it as “tremendous,” and Worthington cited the plan as a “powerful and effective list.”

Wengraf, however, expressed concern about the city staff’s ability to manage the workload outlined in the plan, especially if priorities continue to be added.

Arreguín added that 600 staff members were consulted in the creation of the plan.

“This is really the product of the work of our staff and really reflects the values and priorities of the Berkeley community,” Arreguín said at the meeting.

Danielle Kaye is the lead city government reporter.. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.