While Manatee County is shedding its anti-business and anti-construction reputation, Sarasota County’s remains distressingly intact.
A recent report by the Leadership Research Institute makes this painfully clear, finding that the county’s regulatory and policy climate, along with attitudes of some personnel, are combining to stymie an economic bounce back.
The report is based on 61 businesses and organizations, 36 of which were interviewed individually by the researchers and another 24 were in five focus groups.
The results of the study were pointed and backed up with dozens of comments from businesses. The result: “With … growth slowed, development activity at a virtual standstill and a significantly strained local economy, the regulatory and policy environment is constraining economic recovery.”
The Leadership Research Institute identified the following main barriers to economic recovery within Sarasota County government:
• A complex and overly restrictive set of regulations that are even more restrictive than the state, including the comprehensive plan and the Sarasota 2050 plan for development — or lack thereof — east of Interstate 75;
• Confusion about how to navigate the process because so many county departments are walled off from each other and tend to focus on checking only their own task and not coordinating with other departments, rather than creating a process centered on the customer;
• “Obstructionist” attitudes from some staff members and departments that blunt the momentum for businesses to grow;
• Lack of alignment among departments that would allow for coordination.
The institute pointed out that these barriers lead to results opposite of what the county is looking for now.
For instance, extra costs are incurred to conduct business in the county because of the complicated and confusing regulatory environment. The unpredictable outcomes from the uncoordinated approach hinder investment and “virtually eliminate” the possibility of large business investments. And the county’s restrictive climate significantly decreases its attractiveness to businesses wanting to move here.
But the report is short on specific recommendations. So here are a few to help the County Commission get started.
• First, review every environmental/open-space/green regulation instituted since 2002 for modification or removal if it is blocking development or adding costs that scuttle plans.
• Be willing to get rid of staff members who do not get on board with customer service, those generically indentified as “obstructionist” in the report. Get the right people in the right position.
• Review impact fees, not just to temporarily reduce them, but to see if they are truly needed and if existing businesses should have to pay them when they expand or relocate within the county.
• As much as no one really wants to re-open this unpleasant affair, looking at the long-term economic health of the county means taking seriously the report’s conclusion that heavy regulations restricting development east of Interstate 75 in the Sarasota 2050 plan are blocking development in prime areas of the county.
Manatee County is showing the way with sharply improved processes and people to rid itself of its anti-business reputation and pave the way for recovery. Sarasota County can, and needs to, do the same thing.
BUSINESSES SPEAK OUT
In the Leadership Research Institute report to Sarasota County, business owners were able to give their input anonymously to avoid risking reprisals the next time they needed county government cooperation. Here are a few examples of what they had to say.
• “Have to hire an attorney to get something as simple as a sign approved. Significantly increases the cost to the small business person.”
• “The people in the process function more like obstacles instead of facilitators for the most part.”
• “The building department is confrontational, not at all collaborative.”
• “Definitely have less control over land you own here than elsewhere in the state and country.”
• “The time, energy and money it will take to expand is often times just not worth it.”
• “The quality of life gets people here — the question is, do you want to live here badly enough to do business here?”
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