Modernize Saint Louis’ Outdated Business Code
Miniature pony tracks.
Bathhouses, detective agencies, and pool rooms.
Horse-drawn vehicles, junk dealers, cattle dealers, and street railways.
Sound like the backdrop of a novel set at the turn of the century, or maybe the establishing shots of the newest period drama on HBO? How about Saint Louis City’s business regulations? All of those business models of yesteryear, along with many others, are part of the city’s antiquated regulatory code.
Unfortunately for Saint Louis, the city’s ordinances are almost comically outdated, concerned with protecting the public from businesses that no longer exist or are no longer considered dangerous to the public peace. Does anyone think that we should still require public petitions to set up a pool hall or open a tattoo shop? Should a transient photographer still have to apply for a specific license? Is it necessary that city officials should have, from the front door, an unobstructed view of the back wall of an arcade? Most residents would laugh at these laws, but they are laws. And the fun and games end when real people are prevented from starting businesses because the city has not reformed its licensing rules for decades.
The good news is that a much-needed overhaul of the business code may finally happen. A bill before the Board of Aldermen, BB 110, would eliminate or significantly alter specific license and operating requirements for more than 40 types of businesses, reportedly reducing the total length of the city’s business code by 75 percent. Much of the streamlining comes from eliminating regulations on business models that barely exist in the city anymore, like bathhouses, street railways, and motor carrier transportation brokers. However, some of the changes would eliminate outdated and ill-conceived regulations on a variety of businesses that still exist, including photographers, real estate agents, and massage therapists. For example, barbers would be able to stay open past 6:30 p.m. and work on Thanksgiving, if they so wished. Bed and breakfasts, pool halls, and tattoo parlors would no longer need neighborhood consent to open up shop.
Two related bills before the Board of Aldermen, BB 108 and 109, would supplement the reforms in BB 110 by making it easier to open a small business. Currently, registering a business with two or fewer employees costs $200 annually. Under BB 108 and 109, micro-businesses or home occupation operators would only have to pay a $25 fee. That could make Saint Louis a more attractive place for start-ups with shallow pockets.
While the proposed reforms to the city’s code represent progress, policymakers could go further. For example, the bills would not eliminate dated regulations that govern alarm businesses, brick dealers, laundry/dry cleaning, and pawn shops, among others. The city could also benefit if the business code were reworked to have a permissive attitude toward licensing—an attitude where, instead of a new company having to jump through hoops to start up, officials would have to jump through hoops to shut it down.
Saint Louis City’s greatest concern should not be how new business activity is controlled, but rather that there is too little activity to start with. While the proposed reforms go a long way toward updating the city’s regulations, there’s more that can be done to make it easier to invest in the city, whether that investment is a restaurant or a bed and breakfast or a private bus route. Or even a miniature pony track.