By Chris Eversole
The dissatisfaction about how the City of Gainesville treats businesses – often made behind closed doors – suddenly has become clearly articulated.
This turn of events is due to a coincidence: Kamal Latham joined the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce as vice president of public policy around the same time that Ed Braddy was elected mayor. Chamber President and CEO Tim Giuliani hit a home run in landing Latham, an experienced diplomat and business owner with recent experience in China; Braddy made improving the climate for business a major campaign theme.
The first payoff of Latham and Braddy moving into leadership roles was a Chamber forum—held between the time Braddy was elected and the time he was sworn in—on small business growth, at which city commissioners and staff heard the complaints of business owners and employees.
While the airing of grievances was important, the follow-up to the forum is what will make a difference.
Latham has begun the follow-up by preparing a thorough report on the gathering and outlining of the Chamber’s recommendations for action. Highlights of the recommendations are as follows:
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, not a problem-stating mindset; establish predictable timelines that businesses can use in planning; construct a way for business owners to provide feedback about inspectors; and, benchmark best practices for small business development against comparable growing cities.
Simplicity—Replicate the Innovation Square “simplify and succeed” zoning reform model throughout the city; allow business owners to pay for permits and licenses online and via a check through the mail; and simplify the presentation of “requests for proposals.”
Consistency—Impose standardized policies to ensure consistent enforcement of rules throughout the city; maintain consistency and uniformity among city inspectors; 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 and process payments; streamline GRU’s plan review process; inform property owners about fire marshal inspections; and, assess property owners – not tenants – for fire marshal inspections, where appropriate.
The report also makes the broad recommendation that the city “avoid unintended consequences, such as urban sprawl, due to onerous regulations and inefficient land-use policy.”
Some recommendations, such as launching a one-stop website to serve as a roadmap for businesses, should be relatively easy to implement, Braddy said. Others, including going back to the five-day work week, will take time to accomplished, but “none of the recommendations should be off the table,” he said.
City Manager Russ Blackburn needs to take the lead in instilling a problem-solving attitude among city employees, Braddy said. “There should be no grey area in how citizens are treated,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any runaround.”
Braddy said that he plans to schedule a city commission discussion of the city’s posture toward the business community. “I want an open discussion and the end of whispering about problems. People shouldn’t fear retribution for raising their voice in a free society.”