Communication on how local government affects business in Alachua County is at a high.
Some important accomplishments have been achieved, and efforts to do more are progressing—with opportunities for business owners to get involved.
The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce is taking the lead in improving communications. “The elected officials want to help the community and give people more opportunities,” said President and CEO Tim Giuliani. “The most important thing we’re doing is helping businesses tell their stories.”
The chamber held two forums with Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy in recent months, one at which business owners suggested how the city can improve service to them, and a second on energy costs.
Kamal Latham, the chamber’s new vice president of public policy, compiled a report on the first meeting.
Highlights of the recommendations include:
- Accessibility—Launch a one-stop website to serve as a roadmap for businesses and eliminate the city’s four-day workweek.
- Accountability—Train city staff in a problem-solving mindset, establish predictable timelines that businesses can use in planning and construct a way for business owners to provide feedback about inspectors.
- Simplicity—Replicate the Innovation Square “simplify and succeed” zoning reform model throughout the city and allow business owners to pay for permits and licenses online and via check through the mail.
- Consistency—Impose standardized policies to ensure consistent enforcement of rules throughout the city and ensure that the regulatory framework is fair and coherent.
- Affordability—Reduce assessment fees, lower utility costs, eliminate complicated and unnecessary regulations and halt property tax increases or offer a property tax break to expanding small businesses.
- Efficiency—Establish a centralized office to help small business owners navigate the regulatory process, streamline GRU’s plan review process and inform property owners about fire marshal inspections.
The chamber held the forum on energy costs to collect comments for its 12-member study group headed by David Flagg, a former mayor and member of the state legislature, and David Denslow, a retired University of Florida economist.
The study group is examining how to meet the area’s energy needs cost-effectively, both in the short and the long term, and how to provide people living outside the city a voice in governing GRU.
Braddy’s election reflects movement toward electing moderate and conservative city commissioners, Flagg said.
On the other hand, Susan Bottcher, a city commissioner who is considered to be more liberal on most issues, strongly supported the Butler Plaza renovation and expansion, Flagg noted. “She’s very interested in shopping diversity and the retail jobs that come with it,” he said.
Commissioner Thomas Hawkins, who promotes compact development and bus rapid transit, led city efforts to improve the way the city reviews development proposals.
At his request, the commission appointed an advisory committee on the development process. The committee has concluded its work, and the city is implementing many of its recommendations.
One of the recommendations was to appoint an ombudsman for the development process—someone who has clout in solving problems that people encounter.
Erik Bredfeldt, PhD, a planning specialist, has been with the city 10 years and has taken on the ombudsman role as part of the position of economic development and innovation director.
Prior to that he served five years as director of the Planning and Development Services Department, a job in which he helped improve costumer service, according to members of the business community.
Recently, Bredfeldt’s work as ombudsman assisted the owner of an auto repair business, who was told that he could add a collision repair service only to have that decision reversed after investing tens of thousands of dollars in developing it.
A city planner who originally had agreed to the development had switched his position about whether the business could add a collision repair service, said commercial Realtor Dave Ferro, who represented the owner. Bredfeldt called a meeting and the issue was resolved, allowing the collision shop to move ahead.
“Erik looks at how we can get a project done instead of fearing the repercussions of helping with growth,” Ferro said.
Based on the Innovation Square rezoning experience, city government is working on making the zoning more flexible in other parts of town through a major revision of its land-use code.
One example of increased flexibility that already has occurred allows scooter shops around town, rather than strictly in areas reserved for auto-oriented businesses.
“We can continue to have an attractive city that is a draw for new companies like Mobiquity, while making the development process crystal clear and making it easier to get a green light,” Hawkins said.
In December, the chamber issued an in-depth report on Alachua County’s transportation needs.
The report, prepared by a seven-member task force representing a wide range of business and community interests, made recommendations including:
- Limit any future transportation sales tax proposal to no longer than eight years.
- Approach bus rapid transit cautiously, with the first phase being along Archer Road to Shands and UF.
- Increase the number of buses on high-volume routes.
- Increase bus service to underserved areas of the community.
- Place a moratorium on impact fees.
Task force member Adrian Taylor, senior minister of Springhill Missionary Baptist Church, was the primary author of the report.
Working to create a strong economy is important to him as a pastor, Taylor said. “Economic development affects people, and my job is to help people in all aspects of their lives.”
The chamber is continuing to speak before the city and county commissions during discussions of a possible transportation sales tax referendum on the 2014 ballot.
The chamber is a partner in the Business Community Coalition (BCC), which also includes the Gainesville/Alachua County Association of Realtors and the Builders Association of North Central Florida.
The coalition is conducting a Public Policy Institute this fall. The institute helps prepare participants for becoming leaders in public affairs, including running for office, said BCC Chairman Thomas McIntosh.
All the current activity in public affairs reflects a commitment from business owners and leaders of the chamber and other groups, notes Ferro. His own involvement in leadership roles includes serving on the Alachua County Economic Development Advisory Committee.
“If you’re not happy with the business climate, it’s obligatory to get involved,” he said. “It’s important to become informed and part of the solution. There’s a payback in building relationships that can help you in business.”