The Case for Unique and Creative Business in A Changing City

I opened a business called Canopy almost a year ago with a partner. I left a well-paying, reliable job to do so because I felt a strong desire to try to be my own boss. With a bachelor's degree in saxophone performance, a year and many summers at the Interlochen Arts Academy, it made sense to me that the business I started would be heavily based in the arts. On top of all that, it certainly doesn't hurt to be doing this in Cleveland, where the arts are a seemingly enormous part of our culture and economy.

Fast forward to the present, and much has changed. I now own the business on my own, and it has become a bright and thriving part of the neighborhood in which it exists. Canopy sits just east of Platform Beer Co. and the B&G Tavern, sandwiched in between two 100+ year old businesses, Old Fashioned Hot Dogs and Fredrich Bicycle. These few blocks continue to be filled in with new businesses, and offer a variety of others who have stuck it out through the difficult times. Canopy is in the former home of BUCKBUCK Gallery, who helped establish the space as a hub for art and artists.

In the year that Canopy has been open, the shop has grown from representing 25 artists to more than 80. Two Ohio-made films that showed at the Cleveland International Film Festival had some of their first major screenings at Canopy. One of our artists has gone from selling her first ever piece of art in our shop to having her designs sold at Urban Outfitters all over the country. Another artist was comissioned to create a painting for the Akron Art Museum.

The other side of Canopy is the gallery and event space, where there have been children's art classes, theater productions, film screenings, gallery openings, adult art classes, comedy shows, dance classes, community meetings, and more. Essentially making a strong effort to offer affordable (often free) space for artists in our area to make their visions into reality.

Until one day, when a dark cloud came over us. A single human seemed to be hellbent on doing anything and everything he could to, at the very least, cease all gathering of humans inside Canopy's walls. This person brought to my attention, through the most severe means possible, that I didn't have all of the permits I needed to be operating events at Canopy. Instead of using his vast and detailed knowledge of the city's building codes to help business owners get it 'right,' he chose a path that causes severe risk to a business's ability to stay open.

Canopy doesn't make money directly from events. The appeal of having events is to support artists, but financially, events bring people into the shop, and familiarize them with what we do. Without the ability to hold events, the shop misses out on potentially hundreds of people each month walking through the door. While the complaints filed by the aformentioned human never directly affected whether or not Canopy could remain open as a shop, having to cancel all future events will ultimately make the business unsustainable, and would force it to close.

All of this has to beg the question, WHY? Years ago, a not-to-be-named representative of the city of Cleveland told me at least 80% of all businesses in Cleveland operate without the proper permitting, which seems to be an invitation for more people to ignore their legal obligations when opening their own place. The city is overwhelmed with the sudden volume of new businesses, while still busy catching up with tracking down everyone else who isn't up-to-date. So why would someone who has the knowledge to help new business owners get through the permitting process the right way the first time around, spend his time hunting down businesses who are having a positive effect on their neighborhood, who may just honestly not know they are at fault? I will leave that by saying your guess is as good as mine.

What needs to happen, and what realistically should be crusaded by someone with the knowledge to do so, is that there should be guidelines created for different types of businesses that can be easily followed. Instead of running around City Hall like a chicken with its head cut off, people could get from A to Z with their permits feeling confident that they did it correctly and without inconveniencing anyone.

Aside from all that, what do we want to see on our streets? Vacant storefronts, shuttered buildings, consistent reminders of people trying to make a living on their own and being unable to sustain it?  I think what we need is people of all kinds finding opportunities to own their own business, taking a chance, and with the support of the people in the neighborhood, finding success in their ventures.

This morning, April 11th, I stood in front of the Board of Zoning Appeals, surrounded by people who believe in Canopy and what it can do for the neighborhood. We all spoke about it in our own ways, and ultimately were granted a variance for live entertainment from the board.

Maybe the laws need a complete overhaul, maybe there needs to be more guidance for new business owners, maybe a combination of the two. What I can say for sure is that my impression is that Cleveland's visionaries for what we want our city to be, might just be a few steps ahead of what is on paper. That's what makes it so important to stand up and make our case when confronted with these types of issues. If what works for all of us is something that doesn't fit comfortably into the bounds of the law as is, maybe it's time for change.

Erika Durham is the Editor in Chief of the Ohio City/Tremont Observer. She is the owner of Canopy Collective in Ohio City. Although she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classical Saxophone, she has largely worked in counseling and small business management. 

Erika Durham

Erika Durham is the owner of Canopy Collective in Ohio City. Although she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classical Saxophone, she has largely worked in counseling and small business management.

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Volume 1, Issue 1, Posted 12:05 PM, 04.14.2016