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Obstacle course gets added to menu; Restaurant illustrates permit hassle in city

When Deborah and Joseph Andriaccio decided to open a family restaurant on Hertel Avenue, they knew they were entering one of the most risky business sectors.

Fierce competition. Long hours. Recruiting and retaining reliable help. Weathering economic slumps.

But the North Buffalo couple weren't expecting the type of bureaucratic headaches they confronted at City Hall months before the first dinner was served.

"The [city] process was very tough," Joseph Andriaccio said. "They have permits to get permits to get permits."

"It seemed like it was hard to get the information you need at every step along the way," Deborah Andriaccio said.

The doors of Andriaccio's North, at 1264 Hertel near Commonwealth Avenue, swung open Wednesday.

But in the months leading up to the opening of the 63-seat restaurant, the Andriaccios had to juggle an array of tricky tasks: remodeling to be done, more than a dozen employees to hire, menus to create and food vendors to contact.

They also had to confront a permits and inspections setup that they described as anything but user-friendly. Fortunately, they said, they knew a city employee who helped them navigate a cumbersome process.

"Otherwise, we would probably still be mired in the process," Deborah Andriaccio said. "Honestly, I can understand why some people don't open businesses in Buffalo -- or just throw their hands up in the middle of things."

Business owners have long complained about the permit maze. Back in the late 1990s, city officials began working with business leaders on an extreme makeover of the process.

The goals included reducing red tape, speeding approvals and making fees more equitable. Several years later, the Common Council -- with then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's staunch support -- approved a massive overhaul that included changes in many fees.

Flash ahead seven years. Louis J. Petrucci, Buffalo's chief building inspector, told the city's accountability panel this month that the fee structure is "just way too complicated and needs to be simplified." He acknowledged that many of the changes made years earlier created a more "convoluted" fee schedule for businesses.

A review of permit practices in comparable cities vividly illustrates the challenges that many Buffalo businesses face in opening or expanding enterprises, said James Comerford Jr., the city's permits and inspections commissioner. Some cities can list their various permits on one or two pages.

"In our place, we're talking about over 20 pages of documentation. It's ridiculous. People complain all the time -- including our own staff," Comerford said.

Even interim Corporation Counsel David Rodriguez, the city's chief lawyer, said he has unpleasant memories of Buffalo's permit process from his days in private practice.

"I'd come down here and try and help a client get through this maze, and it's very frustrating," said Rodriguez, adding that he thinks the process needs to be streamlined for both businesses and homeowners.

Comerford said permits and licensing officials are making the overhaul a priority. First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey urged them to work closely with the Common Council, noting that lawmakers will have to approve any changes.

But some wonder aloud why the revisions haven't been made sooner, since Mayor Byron W. Brown has been in office for nearly five years and four months.

Complaints have poured in for years, said Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, chairman of the Community Development Committee. The most recent fielded by his office involved an Elmwood Strip restaurant that cited the same maddening red tape that the Andriaccios encountered.

"It would have been good if they had made changes faster," LoCurto said. "But hopefully, this is a chance to openly fix it."

Permits officials have stressed that they believe some changes made in recent years have improved the process. The fee restructuring approved in 2004, for example, made many permits associated with home renovations more affordable. The city now allows applicants to obtain some simple permits via the Internet.

But permits officials admitted that the process has a long way to go before most people would consider it easy to navigate. Petrucci said the department has been studying operations in other cities, including Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Syracuse and Columbia, S.C.

"We're not going to reinvent the wheel," Petrucci said. "Instead, we're trying to steal what we feel are the best practices among these various cities."

Having recently immersed herself in the City Hall ritual, Deborah Andriaccio has some ideas for improving the setup. She says the city should provide a liaison or "mentor" to every new business -- someone who knows the ins and outs of every office.

"Right now, you're not dealing with just one individual or office," she lamented. "And every time we turned around, it seemed like there was always another form or an additional fee."

She added that small-business owners, -- already over-stretched as they juggle a multitude of tasks -- even have to keep track of different "calendars" for certain permits.

She wondered aloud if the city might be able to devise a "blanket permit" that would address all requirements for a specific type of business.

LoCurto urged city permits officials to reach out to business owners -- including proprietors of smaller enterprises -- as they revamp the process.

The Andriaccios said they also were surprised to discover how many different inspections were required when opening a restaurant.

Between wading through a convoluted permits process, dealing with a small mountain of paperwork and meeting with inspectors, Deborah Andriaccio said preparing for the restaurant's opening has been tough.

"You're trying to renovate. You're hiring a staff. It's almost impossible to deal with all the bureaucracy, she said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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