Jennifer Robertson

Permitting Purgatory

In Buzz, September 2022 by Lauren KruchtenLeave a Comment

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Why does it take so long to open a business in Raleigh?

Notice businesses never open when we say they’re going to? Like a black hole—from application to that ever-elusive opening date—the permitting process has been a huge frustration for Raleigh business owners for years, only exacerbated by the city’s rapid growth.

Some Raleigh business owners feel there’s a power play happening within the City of Raleigh (COR) Planning and Development office. According to a local corporate hospitality group, when calling the planning office for an update on their permitting application, “it feels like I’m rocking the boat—they’ll stall me.” (Note: Given applicants’ fears of being stalled by speaking out, all have been kept anonymous.)

While entrepreneurs across the city—from 2,000-square-foot small-businesses owners to full-fledged restaurateurs to large developers—are exasperated with the permitting process, the city offers a different narrative. COR Assistant Director for Continuous Improvement and Customer Service Karen Ray maintains that the planning department processes applications in the order received. “If somebody calls me and says, ‘Hey, this hasn’t been processed,’ and I see that it’s exceeded our goal timeline, I go ahead and assign it to somebody and have them take care of it that day,” she says.

Owner experience doesn’t add up. One retailer says they paid rent for months before they were allowed to open as they waded through the red tape. “It’s a difficult road to navigate,” says another local small-business owner of the permitting process—which COR Director of Planning and Development Patrick Young acknowledges: “It’s very frustrating to go through a permitting process,” he says.

Despite the lengthy procedure, which can take anywhere from two to six months—or longer—and is largely dependent on whether we’re talking a new build, existing building with change of use, or existing building with the same use, the city is not seeing any significant delays, according to Young. Adds COR Assistant Director for Building Safety Jason Ruff, “If there are several reviews where it’s back and forth with designers to correct things to get it ready to permit, that can feel like a delay.”

To add to the stress of the time-consuming process, it’s expensive, and many business owners emphasize that the city has a “one-size-fits-all” approach to opening a new business. “The small guy gets caught in the same net of processes as the big developers building a 40-story building,” says a local entrepreneur. Case in point: You might remember when Scott Crawford lost around $750,000 in revenue when opening Jolie due to delays. 

So while city council is infamous for being pro-growth and -development, many local business owners mention moving outside the city to open their businesses because it’s cheaper and easier. “I would think that a city driven by so much technology would foster an environment of creativity and forward thinking,” says a local hospitality group owner. “Instead, it feels like they’re gatekeepers.”

Of course, like with all endeavors, as one restaurateur noted, it’s advantageous to have a seasoned team to navigate the tedium. The city is working on a startup guide that’ll hopefully be deployed within the year or to assist first-time business owners with
the process.

Young points out that business openings are at or above historic all-time highs, and acknowledges that the city is tight on resources. To keep up with the volume, the planning department also authorized overtime for building inspectors and reviewers, and made administrative changes to its customer service center to be more customer-oriented and timely on getting people’s questions answered.

Ultimately, there’s still lots of work to be done. “It’s still our city and I’m proud of it,” says a local restaurant owner. “I’d just rather work with them than fight with them. We need to work together.”

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