A screenshot of the city's BizPort website.
The City of Long Beach continued to make strides in casting itself as one of the most business- friendly cities in the southland in 2016 and ended the year with a strong push aided by streamlined business applicant policies.
December’s numbers revealed the average length a business waited for a license to be processed dropped from 24 days to 17 days, reflecting a nearly 30 percent decrease. The month also showed a slight dip in the unemployment figures released in April 2016, sliding from 5.5 percent to 5.2 percent when compared to December of 2015.
John Keisler, the city’s director of economic and property development explained that the city currently has nearly 14,400 active business licenses, not including those tied to real estate like rental licenses. Some of those can take less than a day to approve and others, like a dry cleaner, which is subject to local, state and environmental regulations, can take about 120 days to approve.
While the decrease in time needed to grant a license declined by a week, Keisler said that’s an average figure that actually accounts for hundreds and hundreds of days being shaved off the thousands of applications the city receives annually.
“Even moving the citywide average by a half day means hundreds of fewer days for business owners,” Keisler said. “It means they open their doors faster and it means they start making money sooner. So for us, we’re just beginning, we want to drive the average days for approval down far fewer than seventeen or eighteen days.”
The city has been able to make progress on metrics like this through improvements to its infrastructure that businesses can now use to get their shops up and running faster. Those efforts started with an extensive outreach to entrepreneurs and existing businesses and taking their concerns and, in many cases, turning them into functions on the city’s business portal websites.
For instance, the city’s newest addition, BizPort, was designed as a “one-stop shop” where business owners can determine what kind of licenses they need, keep track of their progress made toward fulfilling city requirements and even be connected to sources of financing.
A new feature now allows for permits to be applied and renewed online. The licenses are mapped out and color coded (Green=active, Blue=pending, Red=expired) and allow operators to better track the status of their own licenses, but also explore the map and locate similar businesses with similar permits.
“People can now look at all the business licenses that they have, it’s all mapped geo-spatially so you can see where all the different businesses are located throughout the city, what their uses are so people can reach out to other people with similar uses who they might want advice from and our business improvement districts have this information so they know when they have a new member that’s entered their BID,” Keisler said.
The city has also embraced third-party businesses like Zoom Prospector, a website that lets you toggle with demographic information to determine if a particular city is right for your business. The website allows users to add layers to customizable maps a prospective business can determine where best to look for restaurant or retail space based on purchasing habits and trends.
If business owners need an inspection they can use Inspector Gadget to schedule those visits. What used to be done by calling a number and leaving a voicemail can now be done online using drop down menus to determine the precise type of inspection needed for the site which has helped to cut down on inspectors showing up for the wrong kind of jobs. The online scheduling system, which launched in 2016, has already received over 3,000 requests for inspection, according to city figures.
Zoom Prospector allows potential businesses to explore cities by purchasing trends and other demographic information.
The city has even created tutorial videos to help users navigate the business application process. Any remaining questions can be sent through the new “Inter Com” function set up to reroute questions via an online chat function to the appropriate party. Keisler said this not only helps eliminate the confusing comments that made up the bulk of the feedback the city received during its outreach efforts, but also wasted time spent scrolling through webpages and calling different departments.
“We’re getting hundreds of questions through online chat and what it does is it automatically triages and then refers the question to the right person,” Keisler said. “We started to write rules that sees one word and then it recognizes that word and sends it to the right person so people don’t have to waste time calling multiple places to find out who can answer their question.”
These improvements were made possible by a partnership of the city’s innovation team with several other city departments both to listen to the issues, but also figure out ways to implement the solutions.
In June, Long Beach was named by the business community as one of the top five business- friendly cities in the county by the Los Angeles County Business Federation. In September, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation went one step further and named the city the most business friendly city in the county.
When Mayor Robert Garcia took office in 2014, the unemployment figure was at 9.8 percent and has since dropped by more than four percentage points as 9,000 jobs have been added to the local economy.
The unemployment number in Long Beach has largely kept pace with the national figure—currently 4.9 percent—as the country has rebounded from the recession. Part of that equation has certainly been the ease with which businesses have been able to open their doors compared to prior decades.
Over 900 businesses have received permits over the past year, and in a statement, the mayor said he expects that momentum to continue into this year.
“The Long Beach economy is growing thanks to national and local investment, entrepreneurs, a strong workforce, and innovations in government,” Garcia said. "2017 is going to be a great year for more economic growth."