On this episode of B2U, we talked with Cate Marshall, Project Coordinator for the City of Charlotte permitting tool, OpenCounter on how the online wizard helps entrepreneurs looking to start and grow their business in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Vanessa: In this episode of the B2U podcast, we sat down with Cate Marshall, who works in development services, and is a co-project manager for the City of Charlotte, and Mecklenburg County’s permitting tool, OpenCounter. This easy-to-use online tool helps entrepreneurs looking to start and grow their business in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region. Today’s show is brought to you by CBRbiz.com, a site connecting you with the resources you need to start and run a business in the Charlotte region.
Welcome back, listeners, I’m your host, Vanessa Vaughn, the founder and chief resilience officer of Asfalis Advisors, and this is the B2U podcast, a podcast bringing business resources directly to you. From starting and growing a business to navigating government contracts, we’re talking with small business experts to get exclusive advice on how to start and run a successful business.
Today, I am beyond excited to welcome to the podcast, City of Charlotte co-project manager, Cate Marshall. Cate is here today to discuss the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s permitting tool, OpenCounter, a web-based tool that can help you build a new business, or expand, or relocate an existing one in the Queen City. So, now on B2U, here’s Cate Marshall. Hi, Cate, welcome to the podcast.
Cate: Hi, Vanessa, thanks so much for having me on today.
Vanessa: All right. Cate, before we get started, please tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do for the City of Charlotte? And how did you get involved with OpenCounter?
Cate: Sure. So, I started my career with the City of Charlotte about two and a half years ago. I was hired on under the Land Development Group, we were in engineering and property management at the time. It was a little bit of a homecoming for me, I’m from Rock Hill originally, and had been living in Atlanta, and I made a huge jump from a background in theatrical performance to public service. So, it was a little bit of a learning curve when I first got here, but my supervisor at the time, Nan Peterson, was working on the implementation and testing portion of OpenCounter. And we talked about my background a little bit, and she thought it would be really good, and helpful to have someone with, you know, public speaking and performance, and I’ve got a little bit of marketing in my background as well, come on and assist with the public launch and promotion of OpenCounter. So, that’s kind of where I started. We have since moved to planning, design, and development, my group all relocated, and I handle major commercial development. I work, kind of, as a plan review or project coordinator. So I work with a lot of design professionals in the city, I manage our meeting calendar with them, I’ve been able to work with affordable housing, which is a lot of fun. And OpenCounter is definitely a passion project of mine, though, it’s been wonderful to be able to work with Charlotte’s small business community, and connect them with the permitting resources.
Vanessa: So, just one question from that. When you left Rock Hill and went to Atlanta and came back to Charlotte, are you a Panthers fan or a Falcons fan?
Cate: Oh no, I’m a Panthers fan all day long, it was very awkward living in Atlanta. It was very awkward, especially when the Falcons were doing well. Now, I am a huge college football fan, I’m a Clemson girl. So, we have several Clemson players playing for the Falcons, so I could watch them and be supportive, but I never wanted them to win.
Vanessa: So, we’re gonna divide the turf here, because I grew up in Atlanta, so I’m a diehard Falcons fan, and then I went to Columbia, USC, so I’m a Gamecock.
Cate: Oh my God, so we are at odds. Like I respect you, but I don’t understand you. It’s okay.
Vanessa: Same. Same. Perfect. Perfect. All right. So, tell us about OpenCounter, and what exactly does it do.
Cate: Sure. So, OpenCounter, as you said, is a web-based permitting wizard. Basically, this provides permit estimates, supporting information that would typically require business owners to speak with multiple agencies, multiple departments, it consolidates that information into one location. One thing that we know all too well and that we see every day is that permitting a business is extremely challenging, we know it’s confusing. A lot of time business owners don’t necessarily know, especially in small business, they don’t know what questions to ask, and where to start, so they get bogged down and thrown from agency to agency. So, OpenCounter asks the pertinent questions in the proper order, and enables them to really understand the requirements at hand. It also assists them with fees and processing times so they have a really good idea of what they’re getting themselves into. We are a little unique here in Charlotte, we have a dual permitting system, so site work is all permitted through the city, which is our group, and then all of the building and trades, so think plumbing, electrical, all of that is all handled through Mecklenburg County.
Cate: So, one of the reasons that I’m really excited and passionate about OpenCounter is that this finally consolidates that information, and a lot of your listeners might not know that this is the first time that all of that information has been accessible in one single location.
Vanessa: Gotcha. So, if I’m a marketing, or a public relations company, or I do management consulting, do they have to get permits as well?
Cate: If you’re locating to a physical space, yes. So, we get a lot of questions when we’ve been out at different events where you’ll have home businesses, people who wanna know, like, what requirements they have. We deal with brick and mortar spaces. So, if you are looking to locate to a brick and mortar store front, that’s when we really come into play.
Vanessa: Got it. So, what problem, or problems, does OpenCounter solve for business owners in the Charlotte area? Like, what’s the why behind this?
Cate: Sure. Sure. So, our overarching goal is always to streamline the permitting process and make it easier for our customers to navigate. OpenCounter is an integral part of making that dream come true, and a reality. Often, interacting with city and county government officials can be daunting, whether you’re a small business or not, and we know that it can be overwhelming. So, as I mentioned earlier, many people aren’t even sure what questions to ask. OpenCounter puts the power back in the hands of our customers, and enables them to really make key business decisions based on a full scope of information.
Vanessa: Awesome. So, as a business owner myself, one of the things that, you know, we always think about is, so, yes, you know, we need to make sure that the infrastructure is set up, and that, you know, we have our taxes and the permits are correct, but, as business owners, we care about business development and growth, right?
Cate: Right. Right. Absolutely.
Vanessa: So, can you elaborate on how OpenCounter is encouraging business development and economic growth in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Cate: Sure. So, ultimately, it’s all about providing our customers with the necessary tools to be successful. We believe that if we provide them with those necessary tools, it makes the permitting process easier, the navigation of that process more easily understood, and it fosters that spirit of economic growth and development that we really wanna see in Charlotte, especially from our small business community.
Vanessa: And so, when you say “Tools,” what does that mean?
Cate: So, the tool being mainly OpenCounter, and again, it’s the knowledge behind that. So, again, we see people who, they just don’t have the information at hand. They just don’t know, again, where to start, or they have bits and pieces of information. But what you run into is, when you don’t have all the information up front, you run into unexpected costs, unexpected reviews, all of that can delay a process or completely derail a project. So, it’s about providing them with the knowledge of necessary permits, of necessary fees, things that they’re gonna incur upfront.
Cate: And, again, OpenCounter really gives them a holistic view of the process upfront.
Vanessa: So, for existing business owners in this Charlotte and Mecklenburg area, how can this tool…well, how can they use this tool to expand or to relocate their businesses?
Cate: Sure. So, OpenCounter has two different portals, when you first get onto the website, there’s a zoning portal and then there’s a business portal. So, the zoning portal can be used for business owners who are interested in verifying if their intended use is permitted in a given area of the city. So, what would happen is, let’s say you wanna open a yoga studio, you could go in, put in your intended use, yoga, that would fall under a specific category that we classify it in the zoning world. Then you’d be able to either enter in an address that you’re interested in to see if it’s permitted in that location, or on the overall map, it’s coded in gray, green, and gold, meaning that if it falls in a green area, you’re good to go. Let’s say you wanna be in South Charlotte, it’ll show which areas in South Charlotte that business could be located. If it’s in a gold area, that means that there are some conditional requirements but it could still be located there, and if it’s grayed out it means it’s a no go. So that’s a great first step for people, we always recommend, especially when we’ve been at different events out in the community and whatnot, speaking with small businesses, that’s just a great resource. And we’ve heard back from a lot of small businesses in Charlotte, that they found that really helpful, just as an initial like, “Hey, can I even do this in the area that I’m looking at?”
If you want us to take it one step further, you look at the business portal. The business portal walks you through, not only the zoning component, but it also then takes you through all of the permits, again, both city and county, and the related fees and times for that. So, again, both of those would be a great place to start.
Vanessa: Gotcha. And so, you know, there’s so many people in Charlotte, millions of people, we have an international presence, one of the thoughts that come to my mind…So, I’m so glad you’re here on the podcast so people can learn about it, but what are the other ways that you guys are getting out there so people can know that this tool exists and it’s open for them?
Cate: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, we’ve partnered a lot with economic development, with Charlotte Business Resources, they’ve been a great resource for us in being able to get the word out there. We are trying to do as many local events as possible, Small Business Month is obviously a big one. We partner a lot with the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, they’ve been great to host us at several of their events. And, again, just any local opportunity that we can find to… We have a table set up that we do, we have a demo that we run to really be able to get the word out there, and we’re constantly looking for other opportunities. So, again, if there are any events that your listeners even know of, that they would like to have OpenCounter at, we’re always happy to come out in the community and speak about the product, and, you know, hope that the community can utilize it.
Vanessa: So, I think about Charlotte’s international business community, I’m also a cabinet member for the international cabinet, and we have Germans, Hispanics, just different groups from all over the world, is the portal…what are the various communication vehicles that you guys have built into the portal, so that way, even if English is not your primary language, you have a way to kind of navigate the system?
Cate: Right. Absolutely. So, one thing that we’ve been really excited about is that we’ve launched our Spanish portal. So, currently, it’s available in either English or Spanish, and can walk you through completely. Again, the first year that we went to the Latin American Chamber of Commerce Small Business Expo, that was not live yet. And that was one of the huge points of feedback that we received from people is, we had our flyers printed up in Spanish, and, you know, we had some of that available, but the portal itself was only in English. So, since then, that’s been about, I think that was two years ago, that was our first one. So, since then, we have launched our Spanish portal. So, it is a bilingual system right now, where you can access it in Spanish, and we’ll look at the possibility of maybe working with OpenCounter for other languages, if we see that need there, moving forward.
Vanessa: That’s terrific, thank you.
Cate: Yeah. Of course.
Vanessa: So, is there anything else that you would like to add before we wrap up today?
Cate: You know, I think that, as I said earlier, OpenCounter is a huge passion project of mine. I really enjoy being able to get out in the community and speak to businesses about it, again, equipping them with those tools that they need. So, I just appreciate you having me on today and letting me share a little bit of my knowledge, and hopefully, me learning something in the process.
Vanessa: Awesome. So, if you’re ready to start or grow your business in and around the Queen City, you can access the OpenCounter portal by visiting charlottemecklenburg.opencounter.com or find it in the licensing and permitting section of CBRbiz.com.
Listeners, there you have it, for exclusive interviews and small business professionals just like Cate, please make sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, or find them at CBRbiz.com. And if you liked today’s show, please rate and review us. If you have any questions or topic suggestions, send in your requests at CBRbiz on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Again, I am your host, Vanessa Vaughn, and thanks for listening to CBR B2U podcast. Until next time, we mean business.