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Penticton open for business? Not this one

Dan MacPherson has spent nearly a year and a half trying to find a way to start his woodcrafting business in Penticton. He says he was faced with a number of unnecessary obstacles and regulations along the way, including fire codes he argued didn't apply to his operation.
November 14, 2017 - 7:00 PM

PENTICTON - The City of Penticton’s website claims it is “open for business” but one new entrepreneur in the city begs to differ, after enduring an 18-month ordeal just to open his single operator woodworking shop.

Dan MacPherson, a professional luthier by trade (he makes stringed instruments), selected Penticton as his first choice to relocate his business after emigrating from the United Kingdom in May 2016.

Corresponding with the city’s economic development office and building department heads, MacPherson says he was originally encouraged to open a business but after nearly a year and a half of wrangling with City Hall, MacPherson has significant doubts.

“The city’s economic development office made promises they ultimately couldn’t deliver, and the people who work in various government departments at City Hall need to understand the rules and regulations that they are being paid to implement and police, something that is clearly not the case in Penticton,” MacPherson says. “It’s been a constant struggle of getting the right answers. I’ve proven the fire department wrong on two occasions and yet they were adamant they were right. It’s taken so long, it’s cost me a great deal. My money’s gone. I’ve invested $100,000 in Penticton so far, and I’m living in a motel,” he says.

MacPherson’s issues with City Hall are mainly regulation and zoning requirements for the business he wanted to set up. He admits he's not the easiest person to deal with, but his small business should be. He doesn't know all the rules, but says the City should. 

His plan was to open a shop similar to what he operated in the United Kingdom, requiring less than 5,000 square feet of floor space to custom-make between 10 and 50 guitars annually, in addition to performing restorative wood work on classic Bentley and Rolls Royce automobiles.

MacPherson’s business, which he calls an artisan woodshop, as opposed to a full blown manufacturing environment, would also require typical woodworking machines such as a planer, pin routers, hand routers, a radial arm saw, hand sanders, a spray booth and a dust collection system.

MacPherson says his quest to find suitable premises to work out of were stymied at each location as they were continually ruled out for one reason or another, due to requirements of the city’s building and fire inspectors.

“I had to find a location before anything could happen, but every commercial location I looked at the fire department overruled. They were adamant I was a high hazard fire risk... but I’m not.... They were insisting I needed to have an engineered dust collection system, a $60,000 investment,” he said.

He says he was also told by city officials at various times to ignore the advice of other city departments, at one time being told by a city official that “no one really knows what’s required” in the fire code for his operation.

MacPherson’s efforts to deal with City Hall spanned several months and resulted in a paper trail of emails to the city’s fire chief, building and permitting manager Ken Kunka, building inspector Jennifer Barber, Mayor Andrew Jakubeit and Chief Administrative Officer Peter Weeber.  He also fired off missives to Brendan Rolfe of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and Ministry of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction Senior Analyst Stefan Virtue, among others.

He says he was told to spend thousands of dollars on equipment he didn’t need and he's now "hemorrhaging money."

“The main issues evolved around paint spraying and dust extraction. On paper it’s not hard to understand and with the right equipment it’s easily achievable. The problem lies with the inspectors and their lack of knowledge for the requirements they are supposed to be implementing and policing - and/or their complete over the top expectations which make a small business like mine completely unviable to start,” MacPherson wrote in an email to request help to cut red tape in October, 2016.

The troubles didn’t end when MacPherson finally found a location in November 2016 that appeared to meet city requirements.

“There was still a lot of argument over the dust collection system... the fire department wouldn’t accept it. They said I needed an engineered dust collection system,” he says.

MacPherson hired an engineer who also agreed his operation didn’t need an elaborate dust collection system, and eventually the fire department signed off on it.

MacPherson says he’s in business now, but has lost contacts with the guitar industry in the year and a half he’s been in limbo. He’s working to rebuild those ties and get the business going again.

He doesn’t feel the city’s actions were deliberate or were intended with malice, but feels a lack of accountability and complacency factor into his problems.

“I’m kind of numb about it now. I’ve had many people tell me since I relocated here that it’s ‘better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission.’ People should be allowed to get things right the first time around, without fear of intimidation or concerns over the fact officials dealing with the matter may not be fully versed and up to date with the regulations surrounding the situation being dealt with,” he says.

“I’ve probably made mistakes, and said things I shouldn’t have, however these people said they could help me, but didn’t,” he said.

It appears MacPherson wasn’t the only one getting frustrated by the delays and slow pace of his business startup.

MacPherson conducted a freedom of information request from Penticton City Hall regarding the nearly 18 months of communication between himself and the city’s various departments to see what was being said internally about his situation.

In one message, building inspector Jennifer Barber said in an email dated Jan. 4, 2017: “This has been an exercise in tolerance for all concerned - everyone from all levels of government and business have been involved in this fishing expedition.”

An email sent by building permitting manager Ken Kunka on Jan. 3 in a heads up to another city department referred to MacPherson’s current issues with a dust collection permit stated: “FYI on the ongoing saga for this business. This gentleman has made this way more difficult than it needs to be.”

A  Jan. 4, 2017 email from Kunka to Jennifer Barber stated: “ …This has been a very unusual situation he’s dug himself into. Perhaps the best end result for the owner would be to set up shop somewhere else. I be following up with owner and the province for final options on Thursday.”

On Jan. 26, Kunka emailed then economic development officer Colleen Pennington: “How many hours were wasted (on a one man show) bending over backwards and confusing the issue to make him happy. A lesson to be learned in establishing proper policy, point of contact and having everyone stick to the script.”

To which Pennington answered: “Totally agree. Every time we engage it doesn’t help us”.

Emails sent on Jan. 27 followed a similar theme, when Kunka wrote: “This guy has absorbed too much time. Now we have 10 staff involved in this.”

Fire Chief Larry Watkinson wrote: “I have no interest in bantering with this person. We have been consistently giving him the same information and he spins it like it’s our fault.”

Perhaps most revealing was a comment by Kunka, made in a March 10 email, when he wrote, “… guy just words things in a way that does not make me want to help him much."

Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said the city has learned a lesson from MacPherson's case.

"Moving forward, we'll have one point of contact for our customers. We won't be sending a customer to various departments for information. Certainly, there were instances where one department said 'yes, this is all that needs to be done' and he would complete that and another department would say, 'no, it's not right, it should be this way'," said Jakubeit, adding the instances happened over a period of weeks or months, and involved time and money on MacPherson's part.

Chief Administrative Officer Peter Weeber said part of the issue behind MacPherson’s lengthy business set up was the fact he actually started a business without getting a business license and all of his business details sorted out.

“It’s one of those scenarios, playing backwards. His reasoning was our economic development officer said it wouldn’t be a problem, which is not acceptable as a reason to do what he did. If he started a manufacturing business before going to the city and getting all the regulatory requirements sorted out, that’s why it all of a sudden got complicated,” Weeber said, adding dust control is a high profile issue with WorkSafe B.C. due to some recent incidents in the province.

“I did some investigating, I did come up with a solution for him and issued a letter saying we’d make concessions on certain things. We also issued a letter outlining some simple things he’s needed to do to start operating, and he’s never done them. He could be operating right now, they weren’t a lot of money, but by that time he said he was broke and he couldn’t afford to do those things,” Weeber said, adding he was aware MacPherson had been in touch with “everyone” about the issue, including the local MLA, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesss and the local MP.

“I was full on it when he first contacted me. I looked at his issues and thought there was some legitimacy. I worked with the building and fire departments to get him a letter issuing conditions of proceeding, but earlier this year he felt he was financially exhausted,” Weeber said, adding the city was not standing in the way of MacPherson’s business start up.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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News from © iNFOnews, 2017

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