"So, when will you be open?" As a new franchise owner, I must have heard that question a thousand times. The people at my franchise support center estimated that my new fitness studio franchise would open about four to six months after locking down a solid retail location. That translated into a projected summer soft opening with a likely August/September grand opening date. Now, as a small business owner you anticipate that a certain number of delays will occur during those crucial first few months. However, nothing could prepare me for the mother of all obstacles that lay ahead: the city of Chicago.
Chicago has two important city permits that must be secured to begin construction: the building permit and the exterior sign permit. Both are expected to take anywhere from four to eight weeks. Generally, the building permit typically gets approved first (for some strange reason)—because we all know the inherent public safety dangers that exterior sign installation can pose compared to the relatively innocuous interior construction, electrical, plumbing and HVAC hazards. I prepped myself and my new team for a roughly two month hiatus as we allowed the well-oiled and finely tuned machinery that is the permitting process in Chicago to do its thing. I would soon learn that the machinery would move about as efficiently as a triathlon bike in quick sand.
Just to get the building permit, the application needed to pass through 17 approval boards, more than 10 inspectors and would encompass three line items labeled only "fee." Keep in mind that this is a 3,000-square-foot studio with no new plumbing needed, three brand new air conditioning units and no major construction required. What should have taken Chicago a few weeks and an invoice turned into an iceberg-melting contest in the middle of the Antarctica. Honestly, George R. R. Martin writes fantasy novels faster than it takes one city department to sign off on its portion of the application. The good news is that the sign permit was approved in three weeks. Great! I can now use big bright lettering to promote a studio that the city won't let me open for five more months.
The root cause of the delays was twofold. First, employees in city government are about as motivated to move your permit through the process as college frat boys are to take a HIIT class at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday. Second, of all the 19,354 cities in the country where I could have opened my studio, I chose the one city that elected to overwrite the universal HVAC code requirements with which the rest of the free world has no issue. The need to move air through the space at 1.5 times greater than normal cost us an additional six weeks in delays, miscommunication and resubmits. And, the only way it was ultimately resolved was by me lying my way into the permit office and catching the ventilation inspector on his way out to lunch. Thank goodness they don't eat at their desks.
In the end, it took 114 days from application submission to city approval. That's a little more than 16 weeks. At least 20 mammals reproduce in less time than that. The delays forced me to renegotiate some issues with my landlord, hold off on equipment purchases and delivery, suspend presale activities, tell my team to stand down indefinitely and forget-remember-relearn everything from Franchise University. As a once motivated and excited new franchisee, I can attest to the fact that the one thing that kills momentum more than the endless bills, skyrocketing contractor price quotes and lease disputes is a delay. On top of that, I am racing the New Year's resolution crowd clock in an effort to get classes ready to go in time for January. It will be tight, but my contractors assure me that by Christmas they will be done. That's the good news. The bad news is the city still has to issue the certificate of occupancy. Maybe they meant Christmas 2017.
Matthew Cicci is a freelance fitness writer and small business owner in the Chicago area. With more than 15 years of experience in the health and fitness industry, Cicci has operated businesses in the not-for-profit, commercial, private, franchise and residential fitness markets in New York City. Cicci has held several industry-wide certifications, has a bachelor's of science degree in management and studied under the master's program for exercise science at Syracuse University. He can be reached at [email protected].