Harlan: We need to take a closer look at business

Comedian Louis C.K. has a routine, “Of Course, but Maybe,” where he challenges long-held beliefs.

Humorously, he illuminates the dark side of principles we generally accept — of course children with nut allergies should be protected and a soldier injured in war is tragic and slavery is the most awful thing ever.

The “Of Course, but Maybe” dichotomy came to mind when I read Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger’s final remarks in The Current commentary about keeping the city’s business license tax low (“Low licensing fees make Costa Mesa an attractive home for entrepreneurs,” June 5). Mensinger concludes that, “We can all agree that Costa Mesa is a great place to do business.”

Of course that’s true. The city offers several qualities that would be attractive to businesses — a large customer base, available skilled labor and locations that are safe, attractive and accessible. Costa Mesa is also part of an Orange County subregion that is well-educated, firmly middle (if not upper-middle) class, and desirable for its proximity to our cherished coast.

But maybe it isn’t. Maybe that perception exists because we have some long-established, thriving places of commerce — economic juggernaut South Coast Plaza, in particular, and assume that other businesses would benefit just by being in Costa Mesa too.

Maybe Costa Mesa doesn’t offer the right environment for economic investment. According to recently released FBI statistics, violent crimes increased almost 10% last year, and property crimes went up by 15%.

Compounded by the fact that public-safety staffing is at historic lows, it would be reasonable for prospective and existing businesses to question whether Costa Mesa provides the security businesses and residents expect.

Maybe Costa Mesa’s new reputation as a hotbed for political instability encourages new businesses to locate elsewhere. A contentious City Council with no clearly defined community vision, and a penchant for being litigious, does not exactly give businesses a lot of assurance or peace of mind.

And maybe the city’s aging infrastructure, in spite of the council’s recent investments in street repaving, gives businesses pause about where to lay down long-term roots.

Maybe what we need is a better understanding of what makes businesses thrive and what actually discourages investment. Mensinger readily admits that “no one knows exactly how many businesses do not have licenses, but the suspicion is that it’s a significant percentage.” And that underscores the real problem — there’s a lot we simply do not know about businesses in Costa Mesa.

Since the city has recently hired a new economic development director, now is an opportune time to delve deeply into this topic and really comprehend the nature of Costa Mesa’s businesses and the climate in which they operate.

The city should convene a forum of businesses from our different industries — retail and dining, entertainment and the arts, action sports, professional services, education, manufacturing and technology — and learn why they are here and what they expect to remain in Costa Mesa. Creating an accurate picture of our businesses, with statistics and qualitative feedback, is critical.

For instance, a former employer of mine, a one-time Newport Beach-based company, chose to relocate in Costa Mesa in small part due to that fact that it wasn’t as “ritzy” as our coastal neighbor. The owners determined that the company’s clients, including municipalities and public agencies, would not be put off by a Costa Mesa address, but could be with a fancy Newport Beach ZIP code. Two years ago, the company and its 65 local employees moved to a high-rise office tower in Santa Ana near the airport.

This kind of information, albeit anecdotal, would help our policymakers and staff understand how to retain, attract and grow local businesses.

It’s easy to say simply that Costa Mesa is a great place to do business. While I expect such comments from politicians, it rings hollow. If we’re going to make serious policy decisions about our business community — and increasing the business license tax is one of them — then we should be well informed about why they’re in Costa Mesa now and how long they plan to stay.

This issue of raising the city’s business license tax to a reasonable level (it hasn’t been changed since 1985, when a movie ticket was $3.55), also illustrates the need to challenge accepted assumptions. Costa Mesa should strive to be a place of value, not pride itself on having the lowest fees and taxes.

Of course, Costa Mesa doesn’t have to be the cheapest place to do business. Maybe — no, definitely — we deserve better.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.