By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
The spate of small business closings in Alexandria continued Sunday as owner Jody Manor announced the closure of long-time Old Town café Bittersweet at its current location at 823 King St.
Open since 1983, the announcement does not mean the end for the cafe and catering company, which will relocate to its previous space at 103 N. Alfred St. and become a much smaller operation. Manor posted the news on Bittersweet’s official Facebook page as well as in a letter to the editor printed in the Times.
Manor believes there is a wider problem in the city, given that so many small businesses recently have closed in the vicinity of King Street. He said City Hall has not helped matters.
“My prism is having grown up here and remembering what King Street was like in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s when most of the retail was empty,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think that a lot of policies have been thought through in terms of their impact on our small business community, I don’t think we’ve had a strong voice for a long time.”
In a letter to city council, Manor warns that the city’s reputation as a hard place to do business is deserved. He criticized the lengthy process to obtain an administrative special use permit, high taxes and fees and a lack of adequate parking policies and wayfinding as just some of the reasons why the city is suffering.
“These anti-business practices clearly undermine our competitiveness when trying to attract new businesses,” he wrote to council. “These issues are within your power to examine and should and need to be addressed post-haste.”
Manor said simplifying the SUP process would make things easier for prospective small business owners, especially those who cannot necessarily afford to pay for an attorney to guide them through the process. It can also be filled with pitfalls, particularly when it comes to setting up in one of the city’s historic districts.
“I think one of the greatest uncertainties that business owners have in the process of opening their business is the multiple hurdles that they have to go through in particular districts with the Board of Architectural Review and then the planning commission and then city council,” said Bill Reagan, executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center. “If those can be handled through an administrative process that doesn’t require each of those hurdles, it would make it a much more manageable process for the business owner. In most cases, there would be no intrusion on the neighborhoods.”
City councilors have discussed simplifying the process, and it was something that dominated talk on the campaign trail last year. Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said expanding the administrative SUP process, which gives city staff a constant criteria to make approvals, could help speed things up.
“The goal is that you have clarity around what we expect out of businesses that we’re representing what the community’s concerns are about a potential business but we’re also giving the business owner predictability through the process,” he said.
Manor said the business community lacks a strong voice at City Hall when it comes to shaping policies, although things have improved in recent times thanks to the work of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and other groups. Chamber CEO Joe Haggerty said the organization has numerous representatives on city commissions, while Wilson added that he has daily discussions with business owners outside of scheduled public forums.
To become more business friendly, Manor advocated for reform on business tax rates. He said paying significant amounts in meal tax, business property tax and the Business, Professional and Occupational License tax can be too much to ask, especially BPOL. That tax is on a business’ gross revenue, and reform was not only discussed locally but continues to be an issue in Richmond at the Virginia General Assembly.
Wilson said action at the state level would be helpful, but there are things Alexandria can do to help lessen the BPOL burden.
“My argument has always been to be strategic,” he said. “Let’s pick the industries that we believe are most representative of where we’re going to see growth in the city, and those are the industries that we should provide strategic tax incentives to try to make Alexandria the best place for those businesses to operate.”
Haggerty said the chamber’s small business tax force’s recommendations from a few years ago are being re-examined.
Manor cited the upcoming waterfront redevelopment as key to help grow the city’s small business community. Discussions are ongoing on interim uses for Fitzgerald Square, the proposed public space at the foot of King Street to replace the Old Dominion Boat Club’s clubhouse, and Manor sees great opportunity by the Potomac River.
“Right now I’m trying to increase awareness of what’s at stake and get more people involved in the process,” he said. “Council’s going to get a recommendation on how we attract visitors from the MGM casino, and the waterfront commission is going to make a recommendation on waterfront governance, and I think those two things will be instructional for me in terms of how I continue my civic activities to support the business community.”