Let's Unleash the American Dream in Waltham

When a parent or teacher asked you as a child "what do you want to be when you grow up?" you may have responded doctor, police man, or musician. Or possibly a movie star, zoo keeper, or professional athlete. Some children perhaps, if they see entrepreneurs in their family, might respond "I want to start my own business doing XYZ." Regardless of the occupation described, I'd expect there to be equal parts imagination and hope guiding your dream and those of your childhood peers.

However, I suspect that the answer to the traditional, coming-of-age question is almost never an enthusiastic, "Someday I will apply for and receive my business license, and then I'll seek an amendment to my local zoning ordinances so that my dream really can take off!"

That might seem like a nonsense statement to some of you, that of course children aren't thinking about those unpleasant realities of being an adult business owner. I respectfully submit that the nonsense is, instead, found in the often-trivial but sometimes-world-crushing hoops that local governments may force citizens through to make their American Dreams a reality.

These hoops include business permits, for a lack-of-which some communities have recently shutdown children's lemonade stands. A Washington Post article published on Jun 12th summarizes nicely the crackdown in a handful of neighborhoods spanning California, Georgia, and Texas. The headliners of the article, though, are Kraft Heinz's Country Time lemonade team who have offered to reimburse young entrepreneurs for the costs associated with fines as well as the permits themselves, if already acquired. This generous program appears to be offered for the rest of the summer, and parents are invited to report fines issued this year or last year.

Popular sentiment appears to be aligned with the kids and their lemonade. Why should they be penalized for a harmless enterprise to raise money for summer activities or Father's Day gifts? I'm inclined to ask this same question for the kids-at-heart in the room, who might sell lemonade or other goods and services. The activity is the same – voluntary transactions with your neighbors – but the consequences are different: failing to operate means failing to put food on the table or to keep the lights on. At which point do we forgo our leniency and place additional burdens on the business operator, despite the elevated stakes?

Inspired by the Washington Post article, I reached out to the administrators behind Waltham Children's Business Fair regarding their participation requirements. The organization, whose second annual event is scheduled for Saturday 6/23 at 10:00am at the Waltham Common, requires kids to formulate a business plan that includes product or service conceptualization, marketing, and basic financing. Not included, however, are considerations for license and zoning requirements. I imagine incorporating those details might make for a good research project, although I'd stop at mock public hearings and referrals to mock ordinance committees. This is a special opportunity for the kids, and we want to guide them to be innovators. Not scare them away from the red tape that lies draped before them in the future.

Business Fair participants who are up to the challenge might look to local newcomers Game Underground for a case study. Game Underground is a video gamer's oasis now located on Moody Street. The store opened on Saturday, May 12, 2018, but it continues to work with City Council to implement the remainder of its business plan, comprised of selling used games and operating a selection of collector-quality arcade machines.

A Wicked Local Waltham article reports the Council's unanimous vote to approve Game Underground's secondhand dealer license on Tuesday, May 29th. Owner Jamie York is quoted suggesting how critical this license is for his company to succeed. In the recorded City Council meeting where this topic is discussed (available via the Waltham Community Access Corporation), Jamie elaborates how this license allows him to compete with the digital gaming marketplace, online sellers of physical game discs, and larger brick-and-mortar stores.

To pause on this development, I am certainly very pleased with the ruling. I reached out to Game Underground for additional comment in the context of this article, and Jamie reiterated his glowing review for the guidance that City Councillors have lent to Game Underground's migration to Moody Street. I love to hear that. But let's consider the secondhand license itself.

The license ordinance states that "No person shall carry on the business of purchasing and/or selling and/or bartering of secondhand merchandise of any description...without first having received a license from the City Council to do so." We should assume that a regulation like this exists to protect the public, right? Well, members of the public may be skirting this protection via several "Yard Sale" Waltham Facebook groups and the local Craigslist and E-Bay communities, among others, that exist for the sole purpose of buying and selling merchandise in a manner that might fit the criteria of the secondhand license ordinance. Do we commit tax dollars and enforcement energy to reign in this activity? If our answer is not a resounding 'yes,' then I would say our policies should be revised to reflect our practices.

Instead of spending nearly 25 minutes on a public hearing and hanging one family's livelihood on the whims of committee, let's allow businesses to sell their wares and facilitate the true barometer of commercial success: consumer dollars. It would not matter if Game Underground sold new games or used games or any other variety of widget. If passersby on Moody Street chose not to do business with Game Underground, the company would be forced to close anyway, and this conversation would be moot. In the era of GoFundMe and Kickstarter, this approach is the crowdsourcing of 'licenses to operate' with no additional burdens place on either the business owners or the City Council, who might otherwise spend their valuable on more pressing matters.

Another Wicked Local Waltham article mentions Game Underground's conflict with existing zoning ordinances, which prevent it from operating the arcade machines. Councillor Robert Logan is quoted as supporting the amendment, expressing that, "Arcades used to be thought of as seedy operations that belong in Coney Island, run by 'skeevy-looking' characters on loan from the carnival… By calling it an electronic game center, we create a new use consistent with what is being proposed." In the meeting video, Councillor Logan states further that, "[Game Underground] is a bit of a different concept from anything we've seen before… a lot of times it's hard to kind of fit it in zoning; it's something zoning never anticipated." He continues to expand upon the City's options in addressing the zoning conflict, and ultimately the public hearing concludes with a referral to the Ordinance & Rules Committee.

My first reaction is to cringe on behalf of arcade owners who run polished, professional businesses today despite the stereotype presented by Councillor Logan. Secondly, as before, I join Game Underground in celebration of their progress through this bureaucracy. I am not sure what the outcome was from the O&R Committee, but I anticipate a favorable ruling.

It is very fortunate for Game Underground that the sitting Councillors and Committee members are receptive to the 'electronic game center' concept, specifically on Moody Street. Other businesses, for which the City Council has amended ordinances to retain, are also benefactors from a collaborative local government. But what if Game Underground had applied for their license a year or more ago? What would have been the ruling then? In the future, as Game Underground is forced to renew its secondhand dealer license each year, will it suddenly face zoning conflicts again that jeopardize the arcade machine pillar of its operations, if the then-sitting Council is less favorable to 'electronic game centers' on Moody Street?

Local governments are pro-business when they write and re-write the rules to cater to enterprises on a venture-by-venture basis. But that is neither efficient nor fair to the owners who might be turned off by existing legislation or by the decision-making patterns of the City Council at the time, who might not entertain yet another ordinance change. Some businesses like Game Underground may weigh the risks and rewards and then to choose to jump into the process. Other individuals may choose to sell online, under the table, instead. The young participants of the Waltham Children's Business Festival may realize someday that the City, in fact, may not present the best environment for their imaginative concepts, and they'll leave to pursue their versions of the American Dream elsewhere.

I believe the best, most business-friendly stance that the City can take would be to protect true equality of opportunity under its commercial ordinances. That is to say, remove as many bureaucratic roadblocks in these ordinances as reasonably possible.

The goal of this approach is to not necessarily favor or retain any single type of business. Surely not all Waltham residents will support an 'electronic game center' downtown. And as I suggested above, these residents will speak with their wallets as to whether Game Underground has a future in the City. Rather, this free market strategy favors and retains the innovators – all of them – behind the next generation of Waltham's commercial cornerstones. Let's inspire the migration of seasoned entrepreneurs to the community as well as the retention of blossoming ones already making waves in our school system. Let's declare proudly, for the rest of the Commonwealth to hear, that "if you can dream it, you can do it in Waltham."

Inspired by the Washington Post article, I reached out to the administrators behind Waltham Children's Business Fair regarding their participation requirements. The organization, whose second annual event is scheduled for Saturday 6/23 at 10:00am at the Waltham Common, requires kids to formulate a business plan that includes product or service conceptualization, marketing, and basic financing. Not included, however, are considerations for license and zoning requirements. I imagine incorporating those details might make for a good research project, although I'd stop at mock public hearings and referrals to mock ordinance committees. This is a special opportunity for the kids, and we want to guide them to be innovators. Not scare them away from the red tape that lies draped before them in the future.

Business Fair participants who are up to the challenge might look to local newcomers Game Underground for a case study. Game Underground is a video gamer's oasis now located on Moody Street. The store opened on Saturday, May 12, 2018, but it continues to work with City Council to implement the remainder of its business plan, comprised of selling used games and operating a selection of collector-quality arcade machines.

A Wicked Local Waltham article reports the Council's unanimous vote to approve Game Underground's secondhand dealer license on Tuesday, May 29th. Owner Jamie York is quoted suggesting how critical this license is for his company to succeed. In the recorded City Council meeting where this topic is discussed (available via the Waltham Community Access Corporation), Jamie elaborates how this license allows him to compete with the digital gaming marketplace, online sellers of physical game discs, and larger brick-and-mortar stores.

To pause on this development, I am certainly very pleased with the ruling. I reached out to Game Underground for additional comment in the context of this article, and Jamie reiterated his glowing review for the guidance that City Councillors have lent to Game Underground's migration to Moody Street. I love to hear that. But let's consider the secondhand license itself.

The license ordinance states that "No person shall carry on the business of purchasing and/or selling and/or bartering of secondhand merchandise of any description...without first having received a license from the City Council to do so." We should assume that a regulation like this exists to protect the public, right? Well, members of the public may be skirting this protection via several "Yard Sale" Waltham Facebook groups and the local Craigslist and E-Bay communities, among others, that exist for the sole purpose of buying and selling merchandise in a manner that might fit the criteria of the secondhand license ordinance. Do we commit tax dollars and enforcement energy to reign in this activity? If our answer is not a resounding 'yes,' then I would say our policies should be revised to reflect our practices.

Instead of spending nearly 25 minutes on a public hearing and hanging one family's livelihood on the whims of committee, let's allow businesses to sell their wares and facilitate the true barometer of commercial success: consumer dollars. It would not matter if Game Underground sold new games or used games or any other variety of widget. If passersby on Moody Street chose not to do business with Game Underground, the company would be forced to close anyway, and this conversation would be moot. In the era of GoFundMe and Kickstarter, this approach is the crowdsourcing of 'licenses to operate' with no additional burdens place on either the business owners or the City Council, who might otherwise spend their valuable on more pressing matters.

Another Wicked Local Waltham article mentions Game Underground's conflict with existing zoning ordinances, which prevent it from operating the arcade machines. Councillor Robert Logan is quoted as supporting the amendment, expressing that, "Arcades used to be thought of as seedy operations that belong in Coney Island, run by 'skeevy-looking' characters on loan from the carnival… By calling it an electronic game center, we create a new use consistent with what is being proposed." In the meeting video, Councillor Logan states further that, "[Game Underground] is a bit of a different concept from anything we've seen before… a lot of times it's hard to kind of fit it in zoning; it's something zoning never anticipated." He continues to expand upon the City's options in addressing the zoning conflict, and ultimately the public hearing concludes with a referral to the Ordinance & Rules Committee.

My first reaction is to cringe on behalf of arcade owners who run polished, professional businesses today despite the stereotype presented by Councillor Logan. Secondly, as before, I join Game Underground in celebration of their progress through this bureaucracy. I am not sure what the outcome was from the O&R Committee, but I anticipate a favorable ruling.

It is very fortunate for Game Underground that the sitting Councillors and Committee members are receptive to the 'electronic game center' concept, specifically on Moody Street. Other businesses, for which the City Council has amended ordinances to retain, are also benefactors from a collaborative local government. But what if Game Underground had applied for their license a year or more ago? What would have been the ruling then? In the future, as Game Underground is forced to renew its secondhand dealer license each year, will it suddenly face zoning conflicts again that jeopardize the arcade machine pillar of its operations, if the then-sitting Council is less favorable to 'electronic game centers' on Moody Street?

Local governments are pro-business when they write and re-write the rules to cater to enterprises on a venture-by-venture basis. But that is neither efficient nor fair to the owners who might be turned off by existing legislation or by the decision-making patterns of the City Council at the time, who might not entertain yet another ordinance change. Some businesses like Game Underground may weigh the risks and rewards and then to choose to jump into the process. Other individuals may choose to sell online, under the table, instead. The young participants of the Waltham Children's Business Festival may realize someday that the City, in fact, may not present the best environment for their imaginative concepts, and they'll leave to pursue their versions of the American Dream elsewhere.

I believe the best, most business-friendly stance that the City can take would be to protect true equality of opportunity under its commercial ordinances. That is to say, remove as many bureaucratic roadblocks in these ordinances as reasonably possible.

The goal of this approach is to not necessarily favor or retain any single type of business. Surely not all Waltham residents will support an 'electronic game center' downtown. And as I suggested above, these residents will speak with their wallets as to whether Game Underground has a future in the City. Rather, this free market strategy favors and retains the innovators – all of them – behind the next generation of Waltham's commercial cornerstones. Let's inspire the migration of seasoned entrepreneurs to the community as well as the retention of blossoming ones already making waves in our school system. Let's declare proudly, for the rest of the Commonwealth to hear, that "if you can dream it, you can do it in Waltham."

Steven Lester is collecting nomination signatures for the Special Preliminary Election for Councillor Ward 6. The filing deadline is Tuesday July 3rd. Please contact him if you would like to see a perspective like this brought to City Council. Thank you for your time and consideration!

Find Steven Lester's Campaign Page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lester4ward6/


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