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Where Small-Business Owners Have an Official Ally

May 14, 2015
Small Business
Fremont, California, in the Bay Area
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Meet Jackie Hall, Fremont, California’s “small-business ally” — there may be no one else like her.

Her specialty? Red tape untangler. “My fingers are down in the mud, shall we say.”

This Bay Area city takes small businesses seriously. So much so that two years ago, Fremont created the official position of ally to make sure the needs of small businesses were being addressed.

“I’ve not met anyone with the same title,” Hall tells NerdWallet.

Small business ally Jackie HallA single point of contact

Fremont wanted someone to serve as a point of contact for everything small-business related, according to a city newsletter.

If you’re thinking of starting a business in Fremont or just doing business there, Hall is there to assist you in “facilitating project reviews and permits” and making it easier for small businesses to deal with “internal city/outside agency contacts and resources.”

Hall served as Fremont’s development services supervisor before her appointment as small-business ally in 2013.

“We go out at lunchtime to discuss problems they’re encountering,” she says of her work. “We do walkabouts to find out what they’re looking for.”

That could mean figuring out the best agency to ask about a specific problem or answering questions about some permit process. One of the biggest problems small businesses wrestle with, she says, is that when they call the city, they get different answers.

“It’s very confusing,” Hall says. As Fremont’s small-business ally, she’s been able to clear up some of the confusion.

“What they like is, I’m the point of contact,” she says. “You can go to one person and you get a well-rounded answer. That’s not to say I know everything. But I know where to go” to get an answer.

It can be a particularly critical role in a city with a growing and  increasingly vibrant small-business scene.

Fremont, California, where small businesses have official ally

Tops for tech startups

A key reason for this is Fremont’s location. The city lies at the northern edge of Silicon Valley, the world’s technology mecca. Fremont is home to many tech companies, including electric car maker Tesla, which runs a major factory in the city.

Three years ago, Fremont was named by business intelligence firm SizeUp as the top city for tech startups in the nation, outranking its bigger neighbor to the south, San Jose.

This tech presence has been great news for Fremont’s small businesses, Hall says. “A lot of them support some of our largest businesses.”

When a tech company moves into the city, their suppliers sometimes follow, and that creates jobs and boosts business for small non-tech companies such as restaurants. “One brings the other,” she says.

Lee Lambert, director of the Alameda County Small Business Development Center, says the economic climate has noticeably improved for small businesses in the area that includes Fremont.

“We’ve definitely had an uptick in business trends over the last year,” he tell NerdWallet.

He cites the overall impact of the recovery, highlighted by gains in the stock market and the technology sector boom.

“Even if you’re not a tech company, you’re realizing the benefits from the tech boom,” he says. “Everybody from folks who work on your automobile to dry cleaners to people who clean houses” has benefited from the stronger economy.

The improved outlook is certainly evident in Fremont. In August 2014, the city made it to the NerdWallet list of the best U.S. cities for quality of life.

The city of 220,000 residents has an average household income of $114,000 and “estimated annual household spending potential” of $2.7 billion, according to city data.

Hall says she’s still focused on making sure the city is doing everything it can to serve those thinking of starting a business in the city and those already there hoping to see their small businesses grow and thrive.

One of Hall’s projects is to roll out a new online system, called Open Counter, which would make it easier for small businesses to navigate the process of starting a small business in Fremont. A similar system has been successfully implemented in the city of Santa Cruz.

Wouldn’t the new online system make a Fremont small-business ally irrelevant?

“I highly doubt that,” Hall quips. “There’s always a question about something. My biggest thing is I like to assist people in getting their projects through and helping them be happy and successful in conducting their business.”

For more information about how to start and run a business, visit NerdWallet’s Small Business Guide. For free, personalized answers to questions about starting and financing your business, visit the Small Business section of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor page.

Benjamin Pimentel is a staff writer covering small business for NerdWallet. Follow him on Twitter @benpimentel, on Google+ and on LinkedIn.

Photos: Bay Area map and city overview via iStock, Jackie Hall via city of Fremont.