Santa Cruz City government has found a way to streamline the permitting processes that new businesses have found as troublesome as dodging panhandlers.
New business owners can apply for all of their forms online in a single web session thanks to a program called OpenCounter created with Code for America, which connects them to all the city forms and fees they need to get business permits.
In a nutshell, it saves multiple trips to City Hall.
The program couldn't come too soon, as some popular businesses announced they would close after years here—Dave's Gourmet Albacore, after 13 years and Bead It, after a quarter of a century. Dave's was stifled by permits and regulations and Bead It by the economic downturn.
"I think of OpenCounter as like a toolbox rather than a phone book," said Peter Koht, Economic Development Coordinator for the city.
"Typically How-to-Start-a-Business guides are like a phone book, and you've got to read it all and then distill the information for what's relevant to you. This is the opposite, based on the answers that you give it gives you the relevant content," Koht said.
OpenCounter is geared not only to small business owners, said Koht, but also to brokers, business consultants, accountants and city staff.
The app is equipped with tools and calculators that are a direct result of collaboration with the Planning Department and Public Works Development.
"There's really literally no part of the city that didn't have a hand in this," said Koht.
Jennifer Pahlka, Founder & Executive Director at Code for America has worked with dozens of cities, but Santa Cruz is by far the smallest to tackle such an ambitious problem.
"This whole process for us really started with Peter Koht, who from the beginning said 'I want Santa Cruz to be part of this, I know we're a smaller city but we've got the innovative spirit," said Pahlka.
City Councilmember David Terrazas hopes that it will help create more jobs.
"It's a single point of contact for new business development, and it's going to help make it easier for people to start and expand their business in town, and I think one of the key points is that we've got a city that is focused on making it easy for people to start new businesses here, and create new jobs," said Terrazas.
Councilmember Ryan Coonerty adds that it puts Santa Cruz on the map as a model business community.
"It sends the message out that Santa Cruz is on the cutting edge of innovation, and that we're a community that other communities should look to about how to be more business friendly and innovative," said Coonerty.
Peggy Dolgenos, owner at Cruzio Internet and Cruzioworks Coworking, is excited to see the local government incorporating cutting edge technology into its planning.
"I think we can see that this project not only changes the application process, it's kind of changing the way the city is thinking about its own organization and the way that it works with companies," said Dolgenos.
"And it's kind of a profound change. That instead of thinking in terms of sheets of paper, and long reports... now we're starting to think in ways that use new technology," Dolgenos said.
Dolgenos also noted that the application helps the government move into the 21st century, utilizing "all of that power that private companies use to run smoothly."
Koht says that he'll be continuing to work on the software, but OpenCounter is now open and ready for business, so check it out!
"It's just so exciting to be able to share this with people because it's been on my desktop for the past twelve months," said Koht.
OpenCounter was made possible by the generous donations from Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, the cities of Scotts Valley, Watsonville, and Los Gatos, and the Silicon Valley Economic Development Alliance.
Are you a small business owner? What was the hardest part of the application process, and would you use this app OpenCounter if you were to do it all over again? Tell us in the comments!