Levers of Power

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Jun 04

It seems that every time an entrepreneur/developer/contractor/renovator/investor/homeowner/business person goes to talk to a city, town, county or village these days to discuss a new project, planners respond this way, “Ah, we have some concerns.”


It’s a huge turn off. 

What do entrepreneurs et al really want? Why do they locate in one city as opposed to another?

They’ll tell you all kinds of stuff, but the fact is that most entrepreneurs are motivated by/make location decisions based on

a few simple principles:

-being close to family

-living not far from work

-going where they are appreciated and listened to (entrepreneurs crave love, affection, praise, recognition and attention)

-living in a place that is considered cool (ie, has a great brand, eg, compare Flint Michigan’s appeal to LA’s) and top tier

-making sure they have access to a great labor force

This is, at least in my experience, pretty much it. 

The above list is ranked from highest priority (being close to family) to lowest. The reason “making sure they have access to a great labor force” is ranked lowest is that entrepreneurs always think they are so awesome they’ll be able to attract high achievers to join their team no matter where they locate.

Of course, there are many other
factors that go into location decisions including: walkability scores, nearby
restaurants/shopping/medical services/health clubs/learning
opportunities/recreation etc, occupancy cost, type of structure, abundant
parking, availability of support services (legal, accounting, finance, banking
and so forth), proximity to suppliers/customers/clients, access to
transportation infrastructure and mass transit, reasonable cost housing, personal safety…

But even if all these latter factors are

somehow satisfied, it won’t matter if the entrepreneur feels disconnected from his/her family, has a horrible personal commute, runs into city planners and officials who give him/her grief, lives in a place that is thought to be

tier 2 or even tier 3, and is surrounded by unmotivated people.

This is why most venture funds want entrepreneurs they back to move away from Upper Rubber Boot, Nebraska to Boston, Seattle, Toronto, Portland, LA, Austin, NYC, the valley… anywhere they can be surrounded by excellence.

I ran an experiment for two years–I asked every urban planner I met (and I see a lot of them) if they had any ideas of their own for the development of their communities, whether it was a large city or tiny town.

I was amazed. Not one had any ideas of their own. None.

They said to a man/woman, “That’s not my job. My job is to check a proponent’s proposal against our zoning code and official (master) plan to see if it complies, and then express our concerns.”

Are you kidding me?

This is why I keep repeating, BURN
YOUR ZONING CODES. Local, national and international economies are changing way
to fast for a top-down, authoritarian process like zoning/ordinance rules to
keep up. It’s putting a straight jacket on employment and local GDP growth, and
sending your most valuable resource (your young people and entrepreneurs) down
the road, most likely never to return.

Businessweek View recently estimated that in some areas housing costs are 50% higher because of zoning rules, and that local economies are performing 10% below their potential for the same reason (https://profbruce.tumblr.com/post/145069051124/helping-people-move-out-of-poverty).

So what to do?

Well, it would help if towns and cities realized they have an extraordinary opportunity to kick start their local economy by becoming pro-active.

“You mean taking initiative, Prof
Bruce, like… do something ourselves, on our own? Are we even allowed to do

“Sure you are! Act more like entrepreneurs do–make up your own rules, Ms or Mr Urban Planner.”

Say you have a nice port/river/lake inside your town or close by.

Why not put out an RFP (request for proposal) for:

-a new marina

-a new RV park

-a new cottage park

-a kayak school

-a wake boarding school

-a kite boarding school

-some water taxis

-a few boat tour operators

I’d bet that every municipality and county has a lot of property that could be used by private sector partners that would contribute to

improving both their employment base and brand if put to its highest and best use.

Why not also look at every proposal that has come before council/planning committee in the last ten years and find out: a) which uses are coming up again and again, and b) which uses have been rejected.

Then, holy-taking-initiative-Batman, why not rezone/redesignate lands in the community in advance and at the city’s or county’s own insistence, and at the city’s or county’s own cost? This is equivalent (in the urban planning space) to putting a person on Mars and returning her/him safely to earth before this decade is out.

Say your town hasn’t had a new industrial user locate in your industrial park in 25 years (an all too common experience in the US midwest, northeast and all of eastern Canada). Why? See above reasons.

What if you found out that your town had turned down a few guys who actually wanted to build in a local industrial subdivision, but also wanted to build a home there? Mixing residential uses with industry? That’s heresy to urban planners. Burn such proponents at the stake… immediately!

But what if, instead, you allowed it? It is, after all, a very common sight–historically, mom and pop lived on a rural road and had their (kitchen cabinet making/repair/fabrication) shop in back. There are thousands and thousands of such places all across North America, and most of them are no cause for concern whatsoever.

Here’s another thing councilors could do pretty much anywhere–wave their magic wands and rezone/redesignate properties along major thoroughfares to allow for both commercial and residential uses. With one act, municipalities could unleash huge amounts of creativity, add to the stock of buildings available for commercial use plus widen and deepen their tax base.

Here’s how it works: if you are a law firm/accounting firm/consultant/architect/realtor/small business owner, many of them are looking to own their own premises rather than rent if they can find a property in the right location that they can afford to purchase. 

It is so expensive to build new today and so time consuming and process-ridden that all but the most foolhardy or motivated people balk. So repurposing existing buildings is pretty much the only way to go.

Here’re a few buildings on a major arterial in Ottawa (on Baseline road near Merivale road), which are ideal candidates for this type of repurposing–


Imagine how much better maintained these properties would be if they were occupied by high end commercial enterprises, and how much more animated the street would be if they were not only occupied by business users but also had an in-home residential suite in the basement (currently permitted by zoning regulations in Ottawa) plus a coach house in the backyard (soon to be allowed by the city)…

This is what leads to both greater density (more of the same use on one site) and intensity (more, different uses on the same site) of development, higher property values and greater public safety.

When a property is occupied 24/7 as it would be when you combine residential and commercial uses like this, there are more eyes on the street so cities become safer. 

It’s also more environmentally sustainable–your trip from home to work takes zero time (if you also live there), plus it makes better use of a scarce resource–land–not to mention public services like sewers, water mains, stormwater works, roads, mass transit and quasi public services like telecom, gas, electricity and internet. 

But if they also require a rezoning to allow commercial use (or better yet to allow commercial and/or residential use) as of right, this is both cost prohibitive for most proponents as well as fraught with uncertainty (seeing as it involves a municipal process of Kafkaesque proportions). 

In Ottawa, there are thousands of homes lining busy arterials that could be rezoned by the city to allow commercial and/or residential uses, which means they could be bought by 100s of local firms looking to own. 


This would be a windfall for people living there (I mean who really wants to live on a street with 20,000 vehicles going by each day, many of them buses and trucks that shake your building) since they could get higher prices. 

It would also benefit the city since commercial taxes are anywhere from 3 to 4 times the residential rate (with many fewer services provided so a big fiscal windfall for the municipality). 

It’s also a winner for the firm buying the property since many of the owners have no pension plan and there is little residual value from their businesses when they retire and sell them. What are most consulting practices worth once a principal retires, for example? Often very little. But a building on a main street has value–it can either be leased to a new firm or sold to provide for the owner’s retirement.

If I ever get time, I’ll write another book called Animate! (or Main Street Makeover, I haven’t decided on a final title yet) that’ll
help cities and towns JLS (jump to lightspeed) or, better yet, engage their
hyper drives (multiples of lightspeed). But suffice it to say here, I believe municipalities
have all the powers they need to save/remake themselves at little or no cost, if they
could just find the political willpower to use the tools they already have.

@ profbruce @ quantum_entity

postscript: please note that the idea for redesignating all residential properties along majore arterials this was is the idea of Dan Oakes, a successful realtor. 

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.