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Brewer finds sympathy at City Hall

Craig Nicholls' red tape hassles lead to meeting with new commissioner

Furious over a $10,000 plumbing bill for his new Southeast Seventh Avenue brewery, as well as permit delays that had him spewing insults at city workers, Craig Nicholls decided Thursday to call newly elected city Commissioner Sam Adams.

Adams arrived at the brewery at 5 p.m. to find Nicholls and the owners of three other brewpubs and restaurants Ñ the Viper Room, Alameda Brewing Co. and the Rose and Raindrop Restaurant and Pub Ñ ready to complain about the city's problems with business permits and parking.

An hour later, Adams walked away with the idea for a city microbrewery and restaurant liaison Ñ and an offer of free beer.

'He was very disturbed by our complaints,' said Nicholls, who worked at Alameda Brewing for four years before branching out with McNicholls Brewery Co. 'If anyone said this city was small-business friendly, no one would believe you. '

Adams said Nicholls' concerns 'were very legitimate. He has a specialized business that doesn't come across the city's permit desk very often. There definitely is a consistency issue in interpreting the regulations.'

On Friday, Nicholls borrowed another $10,000 to pay plumbing, rent and other bills until the brewery's permits are resolved. 'It's rude, disrespectful and shows they don't know what they're doing down there,' he said of his treatment by the city's Bureau of Development Services. 'There's no rhyme or reason to it.'

Bonnie Morris, plan review manager for the bureau, said Nicholls' problem was not so much a service issue, but a regulation issue. 'He's got some technical regulations he was not familiar with. The ball is in his court now.'

City makes changes

Efforts to reform the development services bureau Ñ instigated by Commissioner Randy Leonard last year Ñ largely have been considered successful and have reduced complaints.

However, Mayor Tom Potter's government is going to have to address the ongoing complaint that the city has too much regulation Ñ and follow through on reforms, business leaders say. 'We still have work to do,' Adams agreed.

'I don't think things have improved, but I don't think they've gotten worse,' said Matt Schumacher, whose microbrewery business, Alameda Brewing, grew 12 percent last year. 'There are a lot of fees, different departments. It's an extensive amount of paperwork and process.'

So far it seems like a new City Hall, Nicholls says, one that listens to business complaints and takes action. Not only did Adams promise to usher Nicholls' permits through the Bureau of Development Services within a week, Rochelle Lessner, Potter's economic development policy manager, also offered to help.

'The mayor has made it clear the bureaus are going to do what it takes to help small business,' Lessner said.

Panel ideas stall

Meanwhile, a number of ideas developed by a Vera Katz-appointed blue-ribbon panel assigned to focus on the economy have yet to see daylight, even though the report was released three years ago.

Some items, like tracking industrial property in the region, sped to completion; others, like international recruitment and business climate, fell off the radar. And the rest some city leaders can't remember. The Portland Development Commission, charged with implementing the strategy, continues to work on it.

'It's a very key part of what we do,' said PDC Assistant Director Bob Alexander.

Hiroshi Morihara, president of Persimmon Development Group and a member of the blue-ribbon committee that wrote the strategy, said more could have been done to focus on business recruitment and making the city more friendly to business. 'I don't think the mayor focused on a recruitment effort; most of her time was spent on major league baseball,' he said.

Nicholls said City Hall tends to ignore the reality of small business, like microbrewery expansion, for emerging sectors like biotech and creative services.

'I don't think the city truly understands the brewing impact,' he said. 'If so, they'd be lining up to help out.'