Others’ opinion: Make sure business climate is open

Published 9:49 am Thursday, November 3, 2016

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

On these pages, we’ve come to think of Minnesota’s business climate as an equity issue: meaning, the more open the climate, the more people can pursue the American Dream — even if they don’t know the “right people” who can help them through the maze of rules and regs and bureaucracy.

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We’ve found agreement with some aspects of the idea:

The concept of business climate as an equity issue makes sense, Shawntera Hardy, commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, told us. “When you’re thinking about the best pathway to increasing wealth in a household or in a community, it’s a strong business sector.” A thriving Main Street, she said, means “having businesses that are able to employ the community.”

The best cure for poverty? Access to jobs. That’s a message local leaders heard earlier this month on the Inter-City Leadership Visit — this year to Baltimore to learn from a city confronting its racial divide after a black man’s death in police custody. “It’s about connecting people to employment that lifts them out of poverty,” said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, who was among nearly 100 visitors from the Twin Cities.

The jobs message also includes the suggestion that “as much as we have this clamor to bring new dollars to solve problems,” Kramer said, solutions can involve repurposing existing dollars, as well as clear-eyed assessment of barriers to success.

From the perspective of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, it’s too easy and “all too common that we say we’ll go to the Legislature and have them create some special business loan program or investment program,” said Bill Blazar, a senior vice president with the organization.

Among solutions are initiatives the private sector can take on its own. Just think “how much more powerful” it could be, he suggests, if the state’s Fortune 500 companies would increase their purchasing from our own start-up minority- and immigrant-owned businesses.

There’s a lot of opportunity, Blazar said, “for the business community to take its own initiative to make this a better place to start and grow a business.”

As we consider the barriers to success, we make note of:

The need too often to “know the right person” to navigate regulation and licensing. In a conversation earlier this year, St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker told us she found that entrepreneurs who succeeded had the advantage of knowing her phone number or that of another City Hall insider. That’s an equity issue in a city and county that rely on redevelopment both to grow the tax mix to keep local government fiscally sound and to address concentrated areas of poverty.

Excessive complexity. Among legislative candidates we interviewed this fall, Lakeville Mayor Matt Little — who has made economic development a priority in his city — observed that the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s guide to starting a small business totals more than 350 pages. That reflects the scope of the details that await an aspiring business owner: licenses, permits, regulatory requirements, insurance, taxes and more.

In our diverse economy, the guide must serve a wide range of start-ups. The need for “comprehensive and diverse resources makes it a hefty document,” DEED’s Hardy told us. She notes the department’s effort to guide those who need help to “resources that will get them what they need,” as well as user-friendly strides by the office of Minnesota’s secretary of state, in its services that include registering new businesses.

Transportation: The best argument for investment in transportation is that it also is an investment in job growth. Kramer adds another insight from Baltimore: Those who manage the systems should be prepared to rethink routes that haven’t varied for decades to assure they deliver workers where they’re needed now.

Hardy makes an additional point that resonates: We’re mistaken if our focus is limited to helping enterprises launch. “We can start businesses all day,” she told us. “We have to make sure we change the narrative (so) that it’s not 100 percent about starting the business — it’s about sustaining the growth.”

We’ll continue to explore this friendly-business-climate-as-an-equity-issue theme. In addressing our large disparities, we’re convinced it matters more to Minnesota than feel-good Band-Aids policymakers may be tempted to apply.