Venture Extra: Small business owner says aldermen can help navigate city government

April 4, 2011

Today on Venture, we explore the question of whether small business owners feel like they’re under the thumb of their alderman, particularly when it comes to obtaining licenses and permits. But small business owners’ views and experiences vary widely, and some say their alderman’s office can be a resource they don’t even realize they can use.

Take Tracy Kellner, for example. 

Her business, Provenance Food and Wine, faced paying $11,000 this fall to the city of Chicago to renew two general business licenses and two liquor licenses. Paying all of the license renewals at the same time was going to be very tough financially. She described the dilemma in an interview at her Lincoln Square shop, where she sells everything from black lava salt to French plum pickles to “drunken goat cheese” - Spanish goat cheese soaked in red wine.

"Out of desperation, I thought, `I don't know if I'm going to be able to keep this location open,’” Kellner said.

It hadn’t occurred to her to call her alderman. But that’s exactly what her colleague on the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce did after Kellner described her situation. Two days later, she got a call from Alderman Eugene Schulter’s office.

The alderman’s staffer said, “Go down to the Department of Business Affairs, talk to this person, and they’ll put you on a payment plan,” Kellner said. “That was a tremendous relief.”

What Kellner does find frustrating, though, is that the information came to her by chance. And in this way, her story highlights the fact that in many ways, most small businesses have to go through their alderman’s office to navigate city government.

“For many businesses, the frustration is there's no cut and dried set of processes to achieve things. No matter who you talk to at the city, you get a different answer, and people don't want to document things in writing,” Kellner said.

“It’s only because I work with the Chamber and mentioned it to someone who works closely with the alderman, that this came about,” she said. “If someone was in another ward and didn't necessarily have rapport with the alderman's office, they may have to close because they don't know [a payment plan for business licenses] is an option. Most businesses like myself – we want to do things the right way. We just don’t always know how.”

That’s something the incoming 47th ward alderman, Ameya Pawar, says he wants to address.

“In many ways, aldermen have served as gatekeepers to many types of service, virtually all service, and that's led to an inefficient way of doing things,” Pawar said. “As a city we need to take a look at every process and identify ways to not only streamline them but also centralize them, so aldermen can be legislators rather than gatekeepers to service delivery.”

Kellner says she likes what she hears from Pawar, but she’s waiting to see what happens.

“Transparency is something everyone says they want, but I do get the jaded cynicism that says, ‘Okay, that's what they say, but two years from now is anything going to be different?’” Kellner said. “I've lived in Chicago long enough to know change doesn't happen quickly.”