As a former West Hollywood business owner, I read with interest the Comment column headlined “Why WeHo Business Should Howl” by Charles Crumpley.
He told it like it is. WeHo is so totally antibusiness that it makes sane people sick.
Consider my story. All we wanted to do was open a small wine bar/bistro at Robertson and Santa Monica boulevards. Little did I know what we were in for. The first visit to the counter at City Hall should have told me. Just getting help from the bureaucrats was a major challenge.
I admit I’m not a construction expert, but somehow I thought it should be pretty easy to learn what we had to do. No such luck. The terribly officious, unbelievably unfriendly staff personnel – yes, more than one was there to obstruct and insult – made it clear that they had absolutely no interest in seeing us open the business, let alone succeed.
My experience at the counter made it clear that I would need help. So our contractor, who also had no experience with WeHo bureaucracy, suggested that his construction-savvy “expediter” take over with City Hall. I was delighted to bow out.
After a few weeks, it became clear that there was a home field clique that was designed to make it difficult for business owners, and God forbid, a visiting construction expert.
As we continued to struggle, I got into the issue of valet parking, a big thing in WeHo. Ideally we wanted to have parking right in front of our place, an upscale restaurant. We were connected with one of the valet parking operators who quickly let us know that we would be lucky to get parking at all and that there wasn’t a chance in hell of getting it on Santa Monica in front of our place.
He also suggested that we consider retaining the services of another local expediter who worked with him on retainer to deal with the city. The expediter, as he explained, really knew what was going on at City Hall and could help us get the parking handled. Perhaps he could be helpful with other issues that he was sure would crop up – this he said with a knowing laugh.
We met with the expediter, who it turns out is a member of the local expediter club, a group of five or six local hangers-on who have learned how to play the WeHo political games to help local businesses, at great expense, get through the city’s paper and political jungle.
We eventually got the valet parking. And the local fixer ended up taking over our expediting chores for things like signage, boundaries, sewage problems, and the petty inspectors and mountain of local ordinances that were all in place to do everything they could to raise our costs and inhibit our ability to create a successful operating business.
First there was the suggestion that we join the Chamber of Commerce, but not the regular chamber. No, we were told to join a special business group that costs 10 times as much and get involved. Then we were encouraged to give political contributions to two or three of the council members with the admonition that these people need to know you.
Of course, there also was the very aggressive demand that we contribute to various gay causes in the community so people know that we are there to be good guys.
Before we ever got open, we had spent well more than $50,000 just on these little extras. This for a little 49-seat bistro.
And it never ended. Next challenge: the barriers around the restaurant patio. This ended up being a battle that went all the way to the City Manager’s Office. By this time, I had been around enough and learned enough of how the smelly political winds were blowing that I could get access. I had certainly paid enough for it by that point. We ended up having enough influence to get the head of the city planning in charge of barriers to visit our patio to negotiate the issue.
It was truly humorous seeing this auspicious group, me, two city engineers, the planning honchos and my construction guy walking all around our 10-by-10-foot patio negotiating where we would put posts and how we would keep the diners in and presumably keep the street riffraff out and heaven help us if a chair were six inches out beyond the ropes. We had to install removable posts and have velvet ropes stretched between them, but they had to come down during the day and at night after we closed. Would you believe we still ended up getting fined by the little inspectors who constantly haunted us?
We were open a little more than a year and sold out in 2008.
Yes, Halloween is 365 days a year in WeHo for business owners who are just trying to make a business go, employ locals and pay their taxes.
My advice to any entrepreneur who even thinks of doing business within the city limits of WeHo: DON’T!!!
John S. Haskell is a professional speaker and business consultant who goes by Dr. Revenue. He also teaches business planning at the USC Business Expansion Network.
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