Entrepreneurs in Des Moines must navigate unclear zoning and permitting processes when trying to start their businesses. Des Moines does not meet any of our one-stop shop criteria, tying with Birmingham for last place among our 20 cities studied. While very few businesses need a city business license—significantly reducing the barriers to entry and local red tape that entrepreneurs deal with—officials must streamline zoning and permitting rules and create clear guidance for small businesses starting out.
In Des Moines, the cost, delays, and complexity imposed by the regulatory process make it difficult—or sometimes even impossible—for entrepreneurs to pursue their small-business aspirations.
Based on our comparative analysis of five common business types, restaurants must pay $2,473 to open. Yet food trucks—restaurants’ modest, mobile counterparts—must pay $3,629 to get started due to high costs for licenses and permits, as well as pay for parking meter hoods during the start-up process.
Des Moines does not meet any of the report’s five criteria for a true one-stop shop. The city’s website lacks full explanations and upfront guides on starting a small business, making complex processes even more confusing.
The process for obtaining a building permit is lengthy and opaque, as entrepreneurs endure multiple inspection signoffs and applications for construction and trade permits. This is reflected in the 66 and 64 steps it takes, respectively, to start a restaurant and barbershop.
We calculated this metric by totaling the fees for all the licenses, permits, and registrations each business needs to get started.
Number of Fees
We calculated this metric by counting how many fees governments impose on each business for completing registrations and paperwork.
We calculated this metric by totaling the number of agencies entrepreneurs must work with in order to get up and running—whether in the form of submitting paperwork to an agency’s staff, or in terms of abiding by regulations that an agency has promulgated.
We calculated this metric by counting the number of compliance activities each entrepreneur needs to complete in person, rather than online or by mail.
Number of Forms
We calculated this metric by counting the various forms and applications each business needs to submit
Number of Steps
We calculated this metric by totaling the discrete tasks an entrepreneur must complete to start each of the business types.
In addition to navigating unclear guidance and processes, specific businesses face additional barriers to getting off the ground. New applicants for the food license must pay the maximum registration fee, even though subsequent payments are based on annual sales. Zoning restrictions prevent home-based businesses that are approved by right from having client visits, on-site sales, and non-resident employees.
Applicants for a food truck permit are required to submit receipts showing payment of past-due city fines—prohibiting residents from starting a business if they owe the city even low amounts of debt, such as a traffic citation. Owners are also prohibited from operating within 100 feet of restaurants, and there are only four established vending zones in the city; combined, these restrictions severely limit where trucks can operate.
At the state level, applicants must document their past criminal histories on the Iowa barber and barber shop license forms, as well as certify on their barber license application that they have received at least a 10th grade education.
Accommodations for New or Small Businesses
The fee for a food license is based on annual gross sales, keeping fees low for fledgling businesses.
Officials and policymakers have the opportunity to make it cheaper, faster, and simpler to start a business in Des Moines. City officials should:
Create a true one-stop shop for starting a business, with step-by-step guides and information that covers city, county, and state requirements for getting up and running.
Simplify the process to obtain building permits by combining steps and paperwork, creating more guides for complying with agency rules, and lowering fees.
Reduce fees and eliminate restrictions that would automatically disqualify would-be entrepreneurs on the first rung of the economic ladder who owe past-due fees to the city.
Remove unnecessary barriers on specific business types. Allow home-based businesses to receive clients, have non-resident employees, and make sales from the home. Eliminate the proximity restriction and vending zones for food trucks, allowing entrepreneurs to work from anywhere it is safe to do so.
Work alongside state officials to remove barriers that single out returning citizens and low-income residents, such as criminal history checks on license applications.
des moines, iowa
Christina Moffatt is the owner of Crème Cupcake + Dessert, a sleek bakery in Des Moines’ Ingersoll neighborhood that transforms into a cocktail-serving lounge in the evenings. By day, she crafts delicious baked goods that have earned her recognition by the likes of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars; by night, she assists fellow small business owners with growing their operations and surviving disruptions brought about by the pandemic. When asked about her experiences starting a business in Des Moines, Christina notes that the process is difficult. For people just starting out, even knowing what the requirements are is a challenge, as the city lacks true step-by-step guides for applicants. Since her business serves food and alcohol, Christina must seek approval from both the city and state. But due to the lack of information from the city, Christina did not even realize at first that there were city processes she had to complete. Once she got started, she found that meeting both city building-code requirements and state food-code rules was especially frustrating, as the two groups of officials often failed to work together and ensure that she correctly followed relevant codes. To get her liquor license, Christina then had to go before Des Moines’ city council to defend her business—a process she describes as intimidating, especially for those who do not speak English as their first language. On top of all that, she must pay $1,700 per year for the license. According to Christina, if the process to start up were streamlined, more businesses like hers would be able to open up and serve their communities.
des moines, iowa
Imagine you have spent months preparing the commercial space that will house your dream business. You have invested tens of thousands of dollars and carefully followed city procedures for starting up in your town. But as you approach your long-awaited grand opening, you get a call from a city inspector who, on his way to performing the final inspection, informs you he has to cancel because a single form had not been submitted. For Paige Roth, a Des Moines entrepreneur who owns a chiropractic practice on the west side of town, it was a devastating experience—and one that happens all too often in cities where requirements are poorly explained or when officials do not communicate effectively with applicants for licenses and permits. Paige notes that in Des Moines, the time and cost associated with receiving approvals, especially for building permits, can be burdensome. Because the process is faster and cheaper in the suburbs, the city loses out on development that might have taken place had the process been easier. Everyone would win if the city were more proactive in making the experience of starting a small business smoother and more accessible: it would mean fewer headaches for job creators, and a more diverse crop of empowered entrepreneurs for Des Moines’ neighborhoods.