Walter Vasquez often hears from aspiring landscapers and painters, but there's only so much he can do to help get their business started.
Now the restaurant owner has been tapped to coordinate a meet and greet between his network and Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen. Held in April, this will be part of Cohen's First Fridays series, where he travels around town and meets with various sectors of the business community.
Cohen wants to speak to the Hispanic community during his April meeting, a move Vasquez hopes will lead to more local Hispanic business owners.
"I used to live in Miami Beach and it's a melting pot of everybody from different cultures bringing what they have," said Vasquez, whose Sin Fronteras Cafe will be the site of the April 5 meeting. "That's what we're trying to do here."
Cohen has met with bankers, landlords, commercial lenders, startups and other industries in the past year. The monthly -- sometimes bimonthly -- series is done in conjunction with the Annapolis Economic Development Corp.
The sessions give business leaders a chance to discuss issues affecting them and suggest new policies and procedures. They also give Cohen a chance to meet with constituents in settings that are more intimate than City Hall.
During past First Fridays, commercial real estate brokers learned about the city's new permitting counter and hospitality businesses shared their parking woes. One session with restaurateurs led to complaints about the rules for liquor licenses, which required applicants to have an Annapolis residency.
Now lawmakers are examining a resolution that would amend the rules so applicants would only have to live in Anne Arundel County.
"Part of it is to share with the business leaders that we're meeting with what we've been doing in the city and the steps we're taking to make Annapolis more customer friendly," Cohen said. "A lot of it is just getting ideas, hearing from business leaders what their experience is like. What's good, what are the problems they encounter and seeing what we can do to improve it."
Annapolis Business Association president Sean O'Neill agreed. His group has its own session with city officials, one that also features organizations such as the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau and the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce.
"It's really important for the leadership to know what kind of battle is being fought on the ground," O'Neill said. "It's hard to get a feel for that when you just sit in an office all day. When you can get out there and talk to the people who had the experience firsthand, you get a better perspective."
Candid conversation with the business community is critical. That's the advice AEDC board member Mike Lofton gave Cohen, which helped launch First Fridays. Lofton previously served as deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development.
AEDC sponsors the breakfast meetings, which can center on a topic or geographic location of the city. They try to have about a dozen participants at locations across the city.
Earlier this year, a session on the arts community gave Lucinda Merry-Browne a chance to talk about fundraising. She also learned about social media partnerships that were available through the AAACCVB.
"The city is not in a position to help us with fundraising, which we knew, (but) we can look to the city to help promote and smooth the path for us as we move forward," said Merry-Browne, director of the Compass Rose Theater. "(The arts community) has a side economic benefit as well as a cultural benefit and (Cohen) was very supportive of Annapolis becoming known as an arts destination as well as a destination for sailing and maritime."
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