Restaurateur David Massoni has been dealing with big city building departments for more than five years — that means he has known the feeling of “if you couldn't figure it out on your own, tough luck.”
That’s not what he found when he and his partners came to Jersey City.
“Things went really smoothly,” said Massoni, who recently opened Talde Jersey City and Carrino Provisions on Erie Street. He added: “And what we’ve seen over here is that, for the most part, if you had a question or were running into any roadblocks, if the person you were talking to didn’t have the answer, they were finding it out for you or pointing you in the right direction.”
Jersey City officials say it’s not a case of getting lucky, but the result of a dedicated effort to streamline the permitting process for small businesses. The project has taken place over nearly two years — starting after Mayor Steven Fulop took office in July 2013 — leading to everything from expanded office hours at the building department to giving inspectors handheld tablets in the field.
Such changes have helped more than 150 small businesses open during that time, according to certificate of occupancy figures provided by the city. Fulop said those merchants account for a major piece of the 9,000 jobs Jersey City has added over the past two years.
“We want to set a tone that is inviting to small businesses to be investing in Jersey City,” Fulop said. “We really do view them as being the backbone and the most significant job creator.”
Fulop said it’s important when major companies relocate there from New York City, bringing hundreds or thousands of jobs, but that often doesn’t mean new employment growth in the region. But for small businesses, whether it’s a few workers at a shop or the 130 people employed at Massoni’s two restaurants, those jobs add up.
“If you’re thinking about the absolute low end and the high end there, you’re talking about thousands of new jobs that are being created,” Fulop said. “And these aren’t just transferred geographically — these are actually brand new jobs, often going to Jersey City residents. So it’s a great emphasis.”
Upgrading technology has been a key part of overhauling the building department. The city’s roughly 20 inspectors now visit businesses armed with tablets, allowing them to enter the results of their inspection from the field and be connected with the department’s main computer system.
And Massoni, who went through the inspection process last year, noted that the mobile technology also allows inspectors to schedule follow-up visits while they’re on site. And he said having the same inspector back often leads to better work being done inside a building.
The changes, which came in response to concerns Fulop heard early in his tenure as mayor, also include much simpler fixes such as using email to correspond with applicants.
“The ‘before’ was basically like being in the Stone Age,” said Raymond Meyer, the city’s construction code official. “An application would come in, we would review the application and provide a handwritten notice to tell them to come in here or set up meetings with the architect.”
The department now has dedicated hours, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., to allow applicants to meet with reviewers and obtain their permits if they have passed inspection. And it recently announced it would offer Saturday hours as part of 30-day pilot program.
Maria Nieves, CEO and president of the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has welcomed efforts to make life easier for small businesses in Jersey City. She also expects word to get around as time goes on.
“From our experiences at the chamber — small businesses talk to each other all the time, whether they’re doing it at our events or they just form their own networks,” Nieves said. “So this type of innovation that’s going on here in Jersey City … it’s going to help tremendously, because these folks know others that might want to come to Jersey City.
“When they get asked, ‘How is it to do your business and get your business started here?’ that word of mouth is going to go a long way.”
Of the 150 small businesses that have opened in Jersey City in the past two years, 50 of them have been restaurants.
In many cases, they’re restaurants whose owners see the city in the same light as places such as Brooklyn — and even London.
That’s the case for the owners of Dullboy, one of Grove Street’s newest cocktail bars. Mayor Steven Fulop proudly noted that, as the establishment gets started in Jersey City, its owners are also eyeing a restaurant across the pond.
“One wouldn’t think that’s the natural company for Jersey City to keep, but in any event, we’re very, very appreciative of it,” Fulop said.
Dullboy is only a block away from one of Jersey City’s other newest establishments, Talde Jersey City. It’s the second Talde location for restaurant’s owners Dale Talde, David Massoni and John Bush, and they’re now working on their third in Miami.
“So Miami and Jersey City are being talked about in the same breath,” Massoni said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”