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The Boston Globe

Business

Steven Syre

Sweat the small stuff to encourage small businesses

Don’t just pay attention to the businesses with a lot of clout

A popup in Oakland, Calif. Boston could learn a thing or two from other cities about how to encourage small business growth in off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods.

LANE HARTWELL/Bay Area News Group

A popup in Oakland, Calif. Boston could learn a thing or two from other cities about how to encourage small business growth in off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods.

Two words of advice for Marty Walsh on business: Think small.

It’s easy to picture Boston’s business community as a collection of giant institutions and developers building skyscrapers. Sure, they’re all important (just ask them). But every one of those big players knows very well how to get in front of a mayor and make a pitch.

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The same can’t be said about thousands of small businesses — some tiny and others really not that little — operating downtown and in every one of Boston’s neighborhoods. Collectively, they are a big, street-level economic force in the city. Many of them think of City Hall as part of the problem, not the solution to business challenges.

I know you have advanced lots of ideas about helping small business and some of them are really constructive. But, honestly, words of support for smaller companies are standard campaign rhetoric. It’s easy for those businesses to get lost in the transition to power because, you know, they’re small.

If you really want to boost smaller companies, don’t get caught up in lots of programs and an alphabet soup of agencies. Here are three issues you can work on to make a real difference:

Zoning. The simple problem with zoning is that nearly everyone seems to need a variance to get anything done. That’s just asking for complications that kill business.

There is no single answer to zoning questions in every part of the city. In some cases, zoning laws are simply antiquated and don’t serve today’s Boston. Many other situations are hampered by a less than honest discussion on the merits and drawbacks of individual business sitings and building developments.

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The mayor can’t and shouldn’t make all those issues go away. But he can chip away at the city’s most economically damaging zoning tangles.

Licensing and permitting. This is such a common and longstanding business complaint it may seem unsolvable. But, again, the goal isn’t to make a problem disappear entirely. Aim for a meaningful improvement.

Businesses look at the process to obtain necessary city licenses and permits in Boston as a maze — and often one you need political connections in order to get through. That process is administered by a formidable bureaucracy at City Hall.

I’m glad you highlight this problem in the Globe today. It wouldn’t be that hard to improve the process in Boston. Lots of cities and towns (even the state) have developed plans to streamline navigation and offer constructive help to businesses that need licenses and permits. They’ve had varying degrees of success. But all it really takes is the will of a mayor serious about it.

Transportation. This is a tricky one because the real problem isn’t in a city department. It’s the financial basket case known as the MBTA.

Public transportation is a big issue for businesses of all sizes, but smaller companies are especially affected by problems on the T. More of their employees tend to use public transportation and those small businesses are less likely to have the budgets to augment T service or subsidize higher fares.

The MBTA’s finances are an annual crisis caused by crushing debt its operations cannot support, a simple fact Beacon Hill has refused to acknowledge.

Boston’s mayor should be leading other affected cities — like Cambridge — to make a collective argument at the State House for reliable, affordable public transportation and what it means for our economy.

Steven Syre’s column appears Tuesdays in the Globe’s business section. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.

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