So, yesterday I went to Lake County’s “A Year in Review” session in Leesburg. They have a relatively new Economic Development Director, Scott Blankenship, and a renewed vigor in the department. I was impressed by both their recent efforts toward economic development and by their responsiveness to suggestions and criticisms.

I was most struck by the comments from Commissioner Leslie Campione who talked about what makes a place business-friendly. First, a compliment to Ms. Campione: she walked in the door and before she could even put her bag down was immediately asked to speak. Her comments were intelligent, well-stated, witty, and to the point. It was obvious to someone who had never met her or even heard her speak before that she “gets” economic development and what it takes to get things going in Central Florida.

I agree with Ms. Campione that just approving everything does not make a place business-friendly. If you want good development, you should make it easy for good developers to do good projects, not let bad developers do crappy projects and call it economic development.

At Achievable Solutions, we like to help make for good development and we like to help good, viable businesses get started or expand and make money and hire people. We help you negotiate the vagaries of the development process.

After working on both sides of the table–I’ve been in government and I’m now in the private sector–I’ve learned a lot about what frustrates entrepreneurs and developers. So, I came up with 10 rules that I think make for a business-friendly local government. If you are in government, these are what you should shoot for. If you are in business, places that do these things are the sort you ought to look to do business in.

  1. Clear, straight-forward answers. This is the number one problem that I see–getting vague answers or answers that change from one asking to the next. If it’s going to cost me $80,000 in mitigation costs to get my business open, just tell me; don’t wait six months and then tell me that. I can take that number, work it into my budget, and figure out if I can make it work. If the answer is “No” then tell me “No”, not “Well, maybe” or “Depends on who reviews it” or whatever. If you’re a business person and you’re asking straightforward, honest questions and you aren’t getting straight answers, you might want to consider not doing business in that place.
  2. Consistent and consistently enforced rules. Here’s a dirty little secret: I’m not really all that concerned about how much my impact fees are (and if you’re a business owner, you shouldn’t be either), so long as they’re reasonable. I mean, if they’re triple what they are in the next county over for no perceptible reason, then I care about that, but if they’re in line, then so what. But I do care immensely that I’m not paying something and the next guy is getting it far cheaper. I don’t want to spend tens of thousands landscaping and have my competitor open up next door with one scraggly bush. Consistency is far more important to me than being “easy” or cheap.
  3. Realistic rules. Rules should realistically reflect the nature of the thing being regulated. If I’m in an industrial park, do I really need the same landscaping requirements that you have for Main Street? The six bushes I have up front really aren’t going to offset the ugliness of my batch plant.
  4. Realistic timelines. I’ve got $1 million invested in a property, another couple hundred thousand in surveys, plans, reports, etc. I understand it takes time to do things, but every month I’m hung up in permitting, I might be losing $10,000 in opportunity cost. If you have unnecessary delays or we have to wait for some arbitrary deadline, you are costing me money. When county staff had 3 commercial applications last month, why is it taking staff ten days to review my plans?
  5. Approachable, reasonable staff. I knew a guy who would stamp “Denied” on an application and for a reason would say “Doesn’t meet the Land Development Code.” Uh, could you maybe be a little more specific? I’ve got 2000 pages of code here and you say I don’t meet it. Staff should understand that their job is to make sure things are built and done in conformance with legislatively adopted codes, and that can be done in a positive way. They can say things like “Well, this doesn’t work, but if you tried putting these parking spaces here you’d have enough space for two more spots” or “You wouldn’t have to sprinkle that whole building if you kept your occupancy under x.”
  6. Rules that respect the business process. One of the things that drives me nuts is having to do things before they are ready to be done. If I’m in a conceptual stage, why do I have to have hard-line drawings? I haven’t even decided exactly where my building is going, so why are you asking the caliper and species of every tree? The problem with nailing everything down up-front is that when you finally get the tenant in there and find out he’s got different requirements, now the entire site has to be completely redesigned.
  7. Coordination between different entities. Make sure your rules match up with what DEP, the water management district, DOT, etc. all want. If St. John’s WMD requires a certain water quality calculation, make sure the county asks for the same thing. The worst: don’t ask for a DEP permit in hand when DEP is only issuing the permit subject to local approval.
  8. Rules that are similar to your neighbors. My business doesn’t stop at your municipality’s line, and to tell you the honest truth, I’m not exactly sure where the line is. I know at tax time whether I’m in the city or not, but otherwise, it’s really not that important to me. The big problem here is arrogance: either cities who “know” better than anyone else how to do things or counties who think the cities are too stupid or puny to do anything right.
  9. No political favors. I’m sure this doesn’t really happen, but there is an impression in many places that you’ve got to suck up to the powers-that-be to get anything done. This absolutely kills economic development–even the impression that this happens. And if you think this isn’t true in your community, try taking a look at some local anonymous forum or anonymous comments to newspaper columns. How do you fight this? By being absolutely open and honest.
  10. Respect for the investor/entrepreneur/business person. I finish with this, but really, if a government did this, they’d probably accomplish all the previous nine items. Look, the investor is putting real money on the line no matter what he’s doing. And maybe that money is just extra–just lying around the house, you know, maybe in the sofa cushions. But more likely it’s money that came from years of scrimping and saving or from emptying out a 401(k) or from mortgaging a house or whatever. The flippant denial from the county staffer with no skin in the game is tough to take when you’re figuring out how you’re going to make enough money to pay your employees next week and this is another $10,000 from your kid’s college fund.