The majority of Atascadero businesses say business is going well, though they want more help in deciphering the city sign ordinance and an educational program for new entrepreneurs, among other issues, a recent Chamber of Commerce survey revealed.
The Chamber of Commerce conducted a walking survey Sept. 4 to gauge the needs of city businesses. The campaign, titled Atascadero Business Walk, stemmed from complaints about businesses’ use of temporary signage — such as banners, flags and sandwich boards — that stay up all the time.
While investigating the signage issue, the chamber decided it also would take the lead in determining what other concerns local business owners have and how best to address them.
“We decided we really needed to hear what our community needs and what we can do to help,” said Linda Hendy, the chamber's president and chief executive officer.
More than 100 volunteers visited approximately 475 shops along the 6-mile stretch of El Camino Real that comprises the city’s business district, to distribute and collect the survey from business owners. The owners were asked to rate their performance, as well as to describe any major concerns and possible solutions.
The results were discussed at a special meeting on Oct. 8 at Galaxy Theatres.
Of the 350 completed surveys, 65 percent rated business as “good/great,” while 27 percent rated it as “fair/steady.” Only 8 percent described business as “poor/slow.”
“That was interesting for us,” Hendy said. “The louder voices have been saying business wasn’t good in Atascadero — that’s been the perception. What we really found was that the majority say business is going great. They are quieter, but they are doing well.”
Owners also were asked for any major obstacles to their success, and what the city could do to help.
The sign ordinance issue was divided, Hendy said, with some supporting the A-frame sandwich boards and temporary banners that prompted the survey discussion, and others asking for their removal. Hendy said what was most evident, however, was that many business owners had not been well informed about the ordinance, and many were confused over what sorts of signs were allowed and the permit process.
“We discovered that (for the chamber) it’s really about informing them of the rules in a positive manner,” she said. “I can’t speak for the city, but I do believe that some significant changes could come from this survey in improving the ease and affordability of the sign process.”
Many businesses also raised concerns about the city’s transient population, and a perceived increased in incidents near commercial areas, Hendy said.
“This wasn’t even on my radar (before the survey),” she said. “It’s a topic many cities struggle with, and now that we are aware, it is more an issue of ‘What can we do about it?’ ”
Hendy said after learning of the concerns, the chamber invited Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley to speak at the Oct. 8 event, where he encouraged business owners to contact the police department if they have a negative interaction with a member of the transient population.
“Many of the people told us that they didn’t call the police when they had an incident because they thought it wasn’t the sort of thing the police wanted to hear about,” Hendy said. “I think the police chief did a great job of expressing that they do want to hear about these things, and making the police department more accessible.”
Another major theme throughout the surveys was the desire for more education for potential business owners before they open an establishment, Hendy said.
“The businesses that come and go quickly, people’s perceptions were that they aren’t prepared enough before they open their doors,” she said. “When I heard that, I thought, ‘Shame on me.’ It’s the chamber’s job to do better preparing before they open those doors.”
To combat this, Hendy said the chamber is planning to open a “business center” in the chamber offices at 6904 El Camino Real, where entrepreneurs could go to gain information on applying for business licenses, filing a fictitious business name and other activities.
“There are so many small details that you kind of need a road map for,” Hendy said. “I could do those things quickly, but that’s because I know what I’m doing. We need to help those people who don’t know. It’s all about providing that one central place where people can go for that information.”
The business center is still in the early stages, but once it is established it would also offer mentors for new business owners, chosen from several Atascadero business veterans, Hendy said.
Overall, Hendy said she felt the survey was a success, and that it will significantly impact the chamber’s future decisions.
“It was really outstanding — one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she said. “Action will happen from this, and that’s great.”