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Regulatory changes aim to make Columbia more business-friendly

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Columbia City Councilman Joe Taylor speaks Monday at a news conference announcing changes to business regulations. Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann looks on. (Photo/Christina Lee Knauss)

Contributing writer

Regulatory changes announced by the city of Columbia on Monday aim to benefit new and existing businesses by streamlining startup processes and eliminating or lessening fees.

City officials said the purpose of the new initiatives is to streamline operations, shorten waiting periods, provide more user-friendly processes for businesses and owners and create a more business-friendly environment. The announcement came at a press conference held at the War Mouth gastropub in the Cottontown district that drew city and county leaders as well as representatives from the business community.

Included are changes to the way the city handles grease capture costs and on-site parking, two issues that leaders say has hampered start-ups for restaurants and other small businesses for years.

“This is just the beginning. We want to encourage economic growth and we want more people in the city center,” Columbia Mayor Daniel J. Rickenmann said. “We can’t talk about attainable housing, affordable housing, workforce housing, job initiatives and investment growth if we are not tackling the issues that have been holding us back. This is step one.”

The new initiatives will:

  • Eliminate the water and sewer change of use fee. Business owners will no longer be charged a capacity fee when a commercial property is redeveloped.
  • Simplify the application process for new business licenses and renewals. Personal or company income tax returns will no longer have to be shown in order to apply for or renew a business license. Officials also estimate the entire licensing process will be online by the fourth quarter of this year.
  • Offer additional flexibility and financial assistance for grease capture costs. City staff will work with a project’s engineer, architect or plumber to approve the best grease capture needs for the specific project, whether it’s a grease trap, grease interceptor or other options. The city will also offer a reimbursable loan program that will offset half of a project’s grease capture costs up to $10,000.
  • Eliminate on-site parking requirements for buildings 7,500-square feet or less. Businesses in buildings this size will no longer have to provide on-site parking or rent off-site parking in order to receive an occupancy permit. Parking will be required, however, for residential buildings.
  • Make it easier for businesses to grow. Businesses will no longer have to remove existing parking spaces in order to meet landscape requirements for redevelopment.
  • Establish an economic development program focused on recruiting new investments and support small businesses as they grow. The city will hire full-time business recruiters who specialize in recruiting urban economic development through hotels, restaurants, retail, and other businesses, and also establish project managers to assist local businesses with expansion and guide new investors through the permitting process.

“These initiatives are great for small businesses and for all business in general,” said Columbia City Councilman Joe Taylor. “Over the course of some time, we had unintentionally created these roadblocks for businesses to start here, and this is a huge step for us to have positive momentum going forward.”

Taylor said just the initiatives regarding water and sewer change of use fees, parking and grease trap requirements could on average eliminate between $30,000 to $125,000 of “dead-cost roadblocks” for businesses trying to launch in Columbia.

Taylor, also a property developer and a former S.C. Secretary of Commerce, has long advocated for measures to streamline business openings. He said investors and business start-ups looking to remodel and repurpose older buildings in areas such as Five Points and Main Street will especially benefit from the elimination of the water and sewer change of use fee.

“For someone trying to change an old furniture store, for instance, into a trendy new restaurant, they were sometimes looking at a fee of $35,000 or $40,000 just for the change of use, and that could be a deal killer,” Taylor said. “I think this change is going to physically have a positive impact on the city.”

 He also identified some other steps the city should take to encourage further development.

“Now that these deal-killing costs have been addressed, we only need to speed up the permitting process and fix our non-competitive commercial property rate to put Columbia in a position to be the next great southern success story,” he said.

The changes to grease trap management and parking requirements will go far to help businesses, according to Matt Kennell, president and CEO of Main Street District, a downtown development and marketing organization.

“Grease trap issues on several occasions have been an impediment for those wanting to start a restaurant, so taking this on a case-by-case basis instead of a one-size-fits-all approach is going to be a good thing,” Kennell said. “That initiative, plus the changing parking requirements for businesses of 7,500 square feet or less, are going to help a lot of small businesses and restaurants in the Main Street District. This overall approach to being business-friendly is going to be a big help for businesses in the area for many years to come.”

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