Remove Detroit’s Business RED TAPE

Last week I received a lot of feedback on the article I wrote on the need for bold and visionary leadership for Detroit.

One thing that stuck out in most of the responses that flooded my e-mail is the bureaucracy that has long hindered the smooth and efficient operation of small businesses and businesses of color in Detroit.

That the ability to obtain the necessary paperwork for doing business in Detroit was always greeted with a culture of incompetence at city holding small businesses hostage for too long is unacceptable.

That small businesses often find themselves in a position where they seemed to be subjected to often rigorous and unnecessary and incomprehensible vetting before acquiring licenses or accessing funding from the city is something that should now be a thing of the past. And ending such practices would be a bright light for a Detroit of the future.

If we are seeking a new Detroit that represents the aspirations of those who have long struggled for their businesses to flourish, along with all the other inadequate services they’ve been receiving despite paying heavy taxes, this is the time to mark the red tape down for elimination.

This is not an impossible task because in a new dispensation, where optimism about the city is increasing due to a vibrant private sector that is no longer confining its work to the four walls of the boardroom, but also stepping out in unprecedented ways to be prominently and civically engaged in the life of the community, Detroit can make government work for all.

It is time to channel the frustrations, angst and outcries of bureacracy at city hall into carefully crafted policy agendas that should be in the hands of every candidate running for mayor and city council.

Since most candidates running for political office in this town hardly do their homework because they rely either on name recognition, political heritage or don’t have any inkling of what they are about to face, it is better that those seeking a more robust and effective Detroit government actually give them a mandate.

Those who seek to govern should always derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. And giving these candidates a mandate on ending a practice that has handicapped the growth of small businesses in the city is one way of making city hall more functional to the needs of everyone.

That is something Detroit’s emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, who is charged with reducing the burden of the city’s debt, cannot do.

That responsibility rightly belongs to the civic leaders and the political leadership in Detroit, even though ending the red tape has not been high on the political agenda. Yet it gets mentioned almost like a cliché as a critical factor in how government should operate in the city.

The fact is, red tape hurts economic growth and if small businesses are the engine of the economy, it would make sense to spare them of excessive and mindless bureaucracy that is non-productive to the growth of these businesses who hire locals to work for them.

And today the biggest threat to small business growth in the city and booster of red tape is Detroit’s aged data system. The fact that the city is still utilizing paper rather than fully operating on up-to-date technology makes it extremely difficult to not only make records easier to trace, but also reconciling these records for small businesses.

Detroit’s slow march into the technological age is the biggest known secret and to cut down on bureaucracy would mean making city government hi-tech like Oakland County.

In Oakland County, you can walk in, request information, an attendant will refer you to a computer and you can easily access the information you are seeking.

In Detroit walking into city hall to access information means you must be ready to take the day off from work because you will spend the whole day in your quest for that information. And chances are you will asked to come back another day or week.

A case in point is the 36th District Court on Madison Avenue which is a decade behind in the technological transformation era.

If city government is going to make any meaningful headway providing guidance to burgeoning businesses, city officials will have to move beyond just verbally condemning red tape, but actually implementing reforms that are needed to help these businesses succeed.

That means getting up to speed on technology.

What is needed are reforms that will create economic transformation with city government as a willing partner in providing an atmosphere where small businesses can thrive and find a sense of achievement and growth.

Recently, the city went on a raid of businesses that exist without the proper paperwork. It was important to get those businesses operating in the shadows to meet the compliance demands of local government.

But those compliance demands should be free of anything that impedes the growth of local businesses. Innovators and local business owners should not have to sit and wait for months before getting a clearance certificate.

The longer they wait the more they will lose interest and will be inclined to move elsewhere, where the factors involved in doing business are more conducive and public safety is not a nightmare as we currently see in the city.

It is in the city’s best interest to move quickly to help business owners and young innovators returning to the city start their ventures in the Motor City, and do so with deliberate speed.

The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, under the leadership of George Jackson, has been instrumental in private sector growth in the city.

But much more remains to be done and, according to many of the responses I’ve received so far from business owners, one key complaint is the long lines at city hall, one more hindrance, one more thing to dampen hopes for running a thriving business in Detroit.

Something must change, and that begins by inculcating the need for change in the minds of candidates running for office this summer.

Bankole Thompson is editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of the forthcoming book “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future With Courage.” His book “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published in 2010, follows his recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. Thompson is a political news analyst at WDET-101.9FM (NPR affiliate) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday evening roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York and simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit his personal page at

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