Patio delays are a visible marker of red-tape challenges for businesses

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Small businesses say Toronto’s CafeTO program has too much red tape and that’s led to delays and lost revenue.Getty Images

Toronto has already enjoyed two months of patio season, but many business owners have decried lost revenue and confusing bureaucracy as the city’s CafeTO program struggles to keep up with demand.

“The patios are still starting to go up in Toronto. It’s been extremely slow this year,” says Jennifer Orenstein, a director for the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA).

Ms. Orenstein, who also serves as the Leslieville BIA treasurer, says restaurants in her neighbourhood, such as Radical Road Brewing Co., have had their patio applications approved by CafeTO, only to be rejected by the traffic department. “It’s hard when you’ve got businesses relying on this whole entire project to make money,” she says, citing delays as costly. “There are too many parts of the municipal government that are involved in this one little program.”

A 2022 TABIA report says CafeTO delivered $203-million in economic benefits to Toronto last year. But businesses spent an average of $18,160 to set up their patio spaces and 43 per cent said more assistance from city staff was needed for the program to run smoothly.

This burden of red tape is felt across the country at every level of government. The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) says small and medium-sized businesses collectively paid $38.8-billion in regulatory expenses in 2020, from taxes and licensing to training and safety measures. Of that amount, the CFIB report says businesses believe more than $10-billion could be cut without sacrificing the public interest. Businesses with fewer than five employees cited the highest cost per employee, at nearly $2,000 each.

In Vancouver, Brent Constantine has been trying to move the Little Mountain Gallery, a not-for-profit comedy theatre, to the Gastown neighbourhood for nearly two years after the building it previously occupied was being redeveloped.

“It’s a great location” he says. But “it’s been empty, more or less, while we wait for our development permit, our building permits, and then an occupancy permit. Then we had to get a liquor license for small spaces,” he explains.

As an urban planning major, he can appreciate the need to ensure safety – such as keeping up with fire regulations. But there are demands he is unable to meet. “An example is something like: what

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