Red tape: opening a small business in Windsor has lengthy delays

Angelica Haggert
By Angelica Haggert January 23, 2018 19:58

By Angelica Haggert

“It seems particular to Windsor,” says Brent McBride as his phone rings. He checks the display, and then the time. It’s not yet business hours, so he silences the phone. 

“Very particular to Windsor.” 

McBride is talking about the red tape and complications involved in opening a small business in Windsor. 

He’s been trying add a second location to his escape room business for the last year, but complex rules, delays and unhelpful city staff are costing him a lot of money. 

“You would think you could just see the space, fall in love with it and then you should be able to get your building permit,” says McBride.  

While he waits for his permits, he has to pay an engineer to approve the building and draw floor plans – even though he’s not moving any walls or doors. He doesn’t want to think about the potential income he lost while he waited to open.  

“As a small business owner, you don’t have millions of dollars. You have an idea in mind of how much it costs to run your business,” McBride says. He is quick to list the costs that prospective owners don’t think about – including zoning permits, business licenses, health inspections and engineers.  

“By the time you even get in the door to see your space, you already have to pay an engineer,” he explains.  

“There’s no way some 25-year-old kid is going to have 30, 50, 70 grand put away to open a one thousand sq. feet location for anything they want to do … and it is, it’s a dead minimum of 25 grand.” 

“It’s a dead minimum of 25 grand,” says McBride. His small business expansion plans have been met with lengthy delays from the City of Windsor.

Problems stem from entertainment industry 

McBride blames most of the problems on being classified as part of the entertainment business. He feels, from a building point of view, his escape room more closely resembles an office space, rather than a bowling alley or museum. 

It needs less than 1000 sq. feet of space, so for McBride, it’s hard to see why the same rules apply. But even his tiny space needs to go through a permit and building code process that can take months.  

Then there are the zoning issues. Just because that unit in the strip plaza had been advertised as “For Lease” didn’t mean it was really as available as it seemed. 

Now, employees in the zoning department have told McBride the process could take months, all so the commercial space can be used for a different purpose. 

When McBride’s phone rings for what must be the fourth time, he answers it. It’s a booking for an escape experience later tonight.  

“That to me is the essence of a bureaucratic red tape mess,” says McBride, after inputting the reservation. “How do you have a process in your system that you know is going to take six months and you let it persist?”  

McBride is obviously riled up. He clenches his fists and doesn’t bother to watch his language when he talks about his experiences with the city and its permit process. 

He’s not alone 

Gabby Bleyendaal throws up her hands in frustration. Her sentences are frequently interrupted by the dull roar of saws and drills. 

“The city of Windsor – things will not happen as you expect or plan and there’s nothing you can do about it.” 

“There’s nothing you can do about it.” Gabby Blyendaal’s small business took almost a year to open.

The 20-something Windsorite was so excited to open her own business. Her enthusiasm soon hit the bureaucratic brick wall. It took almost a year of wading through the city processes before she opened a board games bistro in Walkerville this fall. 

“I don’t know if it’s being a woman or being 25, but they kind of just look at you and pat you on the head, ‘Oh honey.’” 

And Bleyendaal wants to be taken seriously. She stands and waves her arms around to make her point. The saws drone on in the background as the kitchen of her new bistro gets its final touches installed. 

Bleyendaal compares the conversation between small business hopefuls to war stories.  

“You talk to anyone who’s opened a small business in Windsor and they go ‘Huh! You wanna hear stories?’” says Bleyendaal.  

Bleyendaal calls it “disheartening.” She says she was often told just “Don’t do it,” when she asked other business owners for advice.  

“That’s not what Windsor should be hearing,” she says. “We should be hearing that innovation is possible, new businesses should be opening, we’re going to get better.” 

For both her and McBride … THE biggest challenge has been the lengthy delays. 

“When you sign your lease and you’ve paid your engineer to come in and do your drafting, it takes the engineer at least four weeks,” says McBride.  

“If they deny it [the plan], the process resets so you could go another four weeks and if they find another flaw, it resets again … you just keep resetting that time clock, and you’re paying rent that whole time.” 

Bleyendaal has had the same kind of experience.  

“I called the city with a last desperate plea,” says Bleyendaal. “I was asking, ‘What do I do? How do I recuperate these costs?’” 

As Bleyendaal moved through the process, her hopes of a June grand opening moved to August, then to September and finally October.  

Just weeks from opening, Wizards of Walkerville still had a long way to go.

“They say it will take them two weeks to approve but then it takes two or three months and they just keep shooing you away and you’re like ‘Okay, what do I do here?’”  

McBride also had a problem figuring out who he should talk to. 

“Everybody defers to another department and they just don’t want to deal with you,” he explains. McBride can’t stay still while he rants about the red tape. 

McBride shows emails from the city telling him who to talk to – and then that person tried to pass him off to someone else.

 

“I went through probably 10 to 13 emails making sure I could set up an appointment to speak with the right person and when I got there the guy gets up and he says ‘That sounds like something for this department,’ and he gets up to walk away and I had to physically get up and go ‘No, no, no. I know that it’s you, I know you’re the guy I have to talk to.’ And he was, but his instinct right away was to go and get someone else.” 

McBride shakes his head, almost in defeat, as he remembers what he considers chaos. 

There’s help for small business hopefuls 

Both McBride and Bleyendaal sought help from the Small Business Centre to navigate the murky waters of  the city’s process. 

The Small Business Centre is one place hopeful business owners can go for help in Windsor.

“In a nutshell, the Small Business Centre is here to support people in starting or growing a small business,” says Sabrina DeMarco, executive director at the SBC. Thousands of small business hopefuls have attended workshops and seminars with the SBC over the years.  

The SBC focuses on business hopefuls in the idea stage.  

“A lot of the work we do here is helping entrepreneurs navigate government rules and regulations,” says DeMarco. “They [the rules] are plentiful and can be daunting, but you can work through the system.” 

Each municipality or township has their own set of bylaws and regulations. 

“The different towns, they all require cooperation on the part of the entrepreneur,” says DeMarco. “And the entrepreneurs require the bylaw enforcers to cooperate with them as well. It’s a bit of a give and take in the partnership.” 

DeMarco agrees one of the biggest problems can be figuring out who you should be speaking to at the city. 

“Sometimes half the battle is just knowing who the right person is to connect with.” 

After 10 months of red tape, Bleyendaal finally opened Wizards of Walkerville. The board game cafe has shelves and shelves of tabletop games, bistro tables and a delicious-looking dessert menu. The place has been packed since it opened. 

McBride has all but given up on opening another business in Windsor – or expanding his existing escape room. He spent a year waiting to begin construction in the basement of another business, hoping to add more escape experiences to the Windsor landscape. While he waited, he searched for a location for a new business. Now, his money is running out. 

“If you’ve got 10-15 grand you’d assume that’s enough but it’s not even close.”  

McBride is the picture of defeat. “It’s not even close. The city is shutting down not just me, but everyone.” 

“The city is shutting down everyone, not just me,” says McBride.

McBride would flip the process on its head if he was in charge, starting with scrapping the wait times for permits. The passion in his voice is unmistakable as he dreams of a better system. “I would train those engineers and those inspectors and send them out to help them [small business owners].” 

In the meantime, he recommends prospective small business owners skip the permit process altogether. 

“Honestly,” he starts and then stops. But abandoning caution, McBride continues. “I would tell them operate under the radar. Do not go to the building department.” 

Despite the struggle, Bleyendaal would still do it all over again, but with more realistic expectations. 

“The pessimist in me says don’t dip your toes in yet. Do your research for everything,” Bleyendaal pauses to wait for the buzz of a circular saw to stop. 

“The optimist in me says do it. It will be worth it in the long run.” 

Angelica Haggert
By Angelica Haggert January 23, 2018 19:58

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