Smart city: With new system, Newark cuts business licensing time by 90 percent in beta test

[This article by Andaiye Taylor was originally posted here, on Brick City Live.]

Earlier this week, Portugal native and pastry chef Anthony Da Silva enjoyed the ribbon cutting for Cinnamon Sugar Bakery, his new downtown café on Market Street, adjacent to the old Paramount Theater.

For the typical owner launching a small businesses in Newark, the rush of launching a new venture is very often checked by the frustrating process of waiting for business license approvals to wend their way through a labyrinthian, paper-based process. That legacy process involves applying and being approved for up to three dozen different business licenses, including fire, police, health code enforcement, and neighborhood services. It isn’t atypical for license applications and approvals to take a year to complete.

But it wasn’t so for Da Silva. For him, the process, soup to nuts, took just 31 days.

It’s all due to the newly automated system for business licensing applications and processing that will soon roll out to all businesses launching in Newark – and for those that need to renew their licenses. Da Silva was the system’s very first beta tester. City officials hope to make the whopping 90 percent reduction in typical license processing time the new norm by December 1st, when it plans to roll the system out to all businesses.

“Mayor Baraka, in his communication with other mayors from other cities, learned more about the automation of the business licensing process and wanted to bring it to Newark,” said Otis Rolley, President and CEO of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (CEDC), discussing the impetus for the project in a telephone interview.

The city’s Office of Technology chipped in to create a custom digital system that could do just that, building it from an open source code base. The move is of a piece with the administration’s goal of converting Newark into a “smart city” – one that leverages digital technologies to automate key city functions, in hopes of enhancing the quality of service in town without having to scale staff in order to do it.

Although Baraka was motivated in part by the city’s innovation imperative, the new system was also a partly reactive – a response to a common refrain officials have heard from frustrated small business owners about the legacy licensing process.

“We were hearing complaints from small businesses, midsize businesses and restauranteurs about the [current] process,” Rolley said. “We can’t talk about the importance of economic development, [yet] not do anything about those things that are preventing businesses from opening up,” he continued.

The new system will incorporate all city agencies involved in the licensing process. This excludes liquor licensing, which is managed by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), a state-level agency.

The city hopes the new process will facilitate economic development activity currently in the pipeline, and make Newark feel more hospitable to businesses once they arrive. Once they “work out the kinks,” Rolley said, they also hope to proactively market to prospective new businesses by touting the ease of starting up. In order to work out those kinks, the administration will open up the system to more businesses on September 21st, before scaling it citywide.

“I want to [use this to] shout from the rooftops that Newark is open for business,” said Rolley.

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