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Alexandria’s Permit Center reopens in-person services for local businesses

After six months of waiting for the city’s Permit Center to approve an expansion of her nail salon, Kathleen Le was ready to throw her hands up in resignation.

“I tell my staff that if they hear me talk about opening another location or expanding to please kill me instead,” Le told ALXnow. “Don’t let me do it.”

Just last month, with the grand opening days away for an expanded Salon Meraki, Le failed an inspection. A sprinkler head in her new salon had paint on it, and after replacing it, she says she was told that all of her paperwork was going to have to go through the city from the beginning.

“I called City Hall to reschedule the final inspection the very following day, because I had the grand opening party, but they said I couldn’t do that,” Le said. “They told me I was going to have to bring in my permit drawing and they would have to review all of my paperwork all over again from square one.”

Le turned to Danielle Romanetti, the owner of fibre space and last year’s winner of the Chamber ALX small business of the year award. The move worked, since Romanetti is well connected.

The multi-department Permit Center is intended to streamline the approval process for residents and business owners. Like many city services, the Permit Center closed at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, although the city says that its online APEX permitting system was still up and running. In November 2021, after 19 months of the pandemic, the city says it fully reopened to in-person business. During the interim period, though, Le said her messages and calls were seldom returned, prolonging what should have been a simple exercise.

“The first phase started with in-person services by ‘appointment only’ in the summer of 2020,” said Kelly Gilfillen, the city’s acting director of the Office of Communications and Public Information. “The second phase began in April 2021 with permit technicians located on the first floor of City Hall. On November 15, the fourth floor Permit Center reopened to in-person customers. Online services continue to be available.”

Gilfillen said that some processes will remain electronic for larger projects submitted by major developers and contractors, although small businesses and residents (to include their contractors) will continue to be provided same day services.

Soon after contacting Romanetti, Le’s permits all got approved and she got the green light to open.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had a one-stop-shop expediting service for small businesses that allowed us to schedule a time to run a project through all departments at once,” Romanetti said. “That is gone. It existed for a reason. We can’t wait 30 days to get permits for a sign on a new business.”

Le said she appreciated the approval, but that the process was unfair.

“It’s not fair for other business owners who have to go through the same thing that I went through,” she said. “What if they don’t have the connections I have? It’s not fair, because the city is supposed to work for the public.”

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