As one Mountain Green couple is finding out, it can be difficult getting a business license in Morgan County.
“The county’s intentions are great, but it is not opening businesses,” said Kera Birkeland. “I believe that in our poor economy, things need to improve in Morgan County to help small business, not hinder it.”
Lars and Kera Birkeland began pursuing a business license to open the county’s first state-licensed day care center over a year ago. They paid application fees and even initiated a change in county land use ordinance to enable a day care facility near the county airport.
Since, they have changed their desired location, purchased toys and furniture, sought state licensure, and put money into building renovations. All told, they have sunk $20,000 into the endeavor and still have no business license to show for it.
Currently, Mountain Green Kids Club Children’s Center at 4883 W. Old Highway Road has an instructional use permit to conduct tumbling, jazz, and ballet dance classes as well as a small preschool class. But the business license to operate the child care facility has been delayed, Kera Birkeland said.
Charles Ewert, the county’s new planning and development services department director, said the change in plans and locations drew the process out longer than should be usual.
“I have 100 percent sympathy for the business,” Ewert said. “I understand their frustration. But as their business plans evolved, it changed the method of (county) review.”
At their current location, the child care center needed a third bathroom. The Birkelands, parents of five and foster parents of many others over the years, were willing to construct it, but found out they needed a permit to do so. The permit took two months to obtain, valuable time when the list of potential clients needing child care in the area continued to grow.
Later, the county building inspector had concerns about the electricity in one of the walls, water temperature regulation, bathroom flooring, exit signs, and an outside fence. Although the state required a fenced play area, Morgan County Building Inspector Kent Smith was concerned about the ability for children to exit the area in case of a fire.
“If these were just concerns, it wasted months of our time,” Kera said.
But extra vigilance is called for when considering a business that deals with the “precious cargo” of children, Ewert said.
“There are going to be kids in a building that may or may not have adequate fire suppression,” Ewert said. “That was our sticking point.”
The Birkelands say they appreciate the attention the county gives to businesses that involve our children.
“We understand the concerns, but a line needs to be drawn,” Kera said. “It’s one thing to keep people in compliance but a whole other thing to hold them back based on concerns. In our situation, the state has a very rigorous check list and does weekly inspections.”
Kera said she expected to jump through hoops because of the nature of her business, but said the county has not provided documentation. She said the couple asked county staff for a list of county codes that applied directly to them in order to quickly conform and get their business up and running.
“What is the real code? What is required?” Kera asked. “We asked for the code over and over. I just want a code to say why I am not opening. The county needs to give clear, concise codes and definitions.”
Ewert said that in a small county with limited government and even fewer resources, perusing the 700 pages of the International Building Code adopted by the state is difficult.
“They should rely on the private market to produce that list,” Ewert said. “We are responsible for ensuring that what (the business owner) produces is compliant. We are trying to ensure the public, and make a reasonable assumption, that the building is not going to collapse on them, and their children are going to survive a fire.”
In the meantime, Needles Peak Bike Shop, which operates in the same building, started doing business in a space previously identified on plans as storage. This raised county staff’s concerns about proper exits, and Kera said the county used it to put her business license on hold yet again.
“The final inspection said we can’t open until Needles Peak is closed,” Kera said. “Why impede one business because another business is not in compliance? Our side of the wall is completely in compliance, yet they are operational and making money.”
Ewert told The Morgan County News that the Birkeland’s license has nothing to do with things going on at Needles Peak Bike Shop. He said the bike shop must remove tiles of their dropped ceiling to allow the exposure of the overhead fire sprinkling system in order to remain in compliance with their own business license.
However, in a Dec. 3 email to Lars Birkeland, Ewert said, “It appears that a separate business is being operated in an area marked on your submitted plans as storage space. This area has not been approved for this type of use, and several building and fire code violations exist. We are in the ongoing process of trying to obtain compliance from them. Unless they can bring their area into compliance with required codes, the County will likely need to revoke their business license and get all non-storage business operations to cease prior to issuing yours.”
Ewert said the County is only waiting on one thing to issue the Birkelands their license: documentation from a fire official certifying a favorable inspection. Kera said the inspection has been done, and she is waiting on documentation of that herself. He estimated the license would be issued within the week.
But the Birkelands have heard that estimation before, for three months now, Kera said.
Many other businesses were previously given a business license in the same building, even though the building may not have been up to code, she said.
Ewert said the county was not aware of modifications made to the building until the building official inspected the premises in connection with the Birkeland’s business license request.
“The county is in the process of updating its standard procedures to ask those questions more often,” Ewert said. “It was not (previously) under the county purview procedurally.”
Meanwhile, the list of potential day care clients has begun to shrink. The Birkelands anticipated opening Aug. 23, the first day of school.
“I’ve got parents looking elsewhere for day care,” Kera said. “It looks bad on my part, but we have zero control.”
The Birkelands have worked with two planning directors—Blaine Gehring and Charlie Ewert—in a time of department turn over.
“I am getting so many different stories. We are not getting straight answers,” Kera said. “I wish the department would run a little more smoothly. I have a lot of concerns about how things are being handled. We’ve been given no answers, help or guidance.”
Ewert suggests that those wanting to open a business in Morgan hire their own professional licensed in code compliance to speed up the process.
“We worked with the landowner, property owner and business owner to provide solutions,” Ewert said. “But not as fast as they liked.”
The Birkelands have heard similar complaints from others trying to open businesses in the county.
“Morgan has a terrible reputation as one of the most non-business friendly counties in the state,” Kera said. “Every state worker I have spoken to about getting opened has laughed and said, ‘Good luck’ when I tell them I am trying to open my child care center in Morgan County. They all know this is a difficult place to open and own a business. We need businesses to come in and improve our tax base. We need local employment opportunities.”
Once the Birkelands can get their day care facility open, they plan to offer many services to the community they have lived in for almost six years. Plans include free child care while parents volunteer in local schools and fundraisers to benefit those same schools. The center will offer Friday movie nights, after-school tutoring, and hourly rates so parents can ski at local resorts,
“There has been a lot of interest,” Kera said. “Every day someone calls.”
She said having five children every day would pay for rent, taxes, and employee’s wages. However, she plans on having an average of 10 to 12 children daily.
Three employees are on hold, waiting for the center to open. Including dance instructors, the Mountain Green Kids Club will have up to 12 people on payroll.
“We will get open and we will be fine,” Kera said. “But we don’t want to see others spend a whole year trying to open a business here. We want to see that changed.”