I got in trouble with City Hall recently.
I had been managing the lease of a building downtown as a volunteer for what we were calling a “creative innovation hub”. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I needed to get an occupancy permit when the lease changed hands.
As a city councillor I really should have known, and the mistake is embarrassing to say the least. But there is a silver lining: the ensuing process of applications, inspections, and tenant-landlord disputes has really opened my eyes to what business owners and developers in our city have to deal with when trying to make stuff happen in St. John’s.
Coincidentally, this all happened while I was in the midst of a series of conversations with business owners, entrepreneurs, developers, councillors and City staff, looking for concrete ways to make St. John’s truly “business friendly”.
I’ve been looking for ways to help our local business community for some time, and feel like our progress hasn’t been strong enough. So today I’m offering a set of 10 objectives with clear actions to try and make some tangible improvements.
TL;DR: This post is a bit lengthy, so click here for the short version.
Note: These Are My Personal Opinions
What you're about to read is a series of objectives that I, as an individual Councillor, have been exploring. It is not a formal, Council-approved plan, and while I have reviewed all of it with staff, I can't guarantee this will all be accomplished.
With that said, the point of this post is to begin a public conversation about how we can do better. The actions below will be modified based on the ensuing feedback, and will act as a guide for my personal efforts to make St. John's more business friendly.
Before I get started, it’s worth noting that at least a couple of recent, robust, and reputable reports have pegged St. John’s as having one of the lowest costs of doing business in Canada.
You can read those here:
However, while we shouldn’t ignore these reports (and should probably spread the word!), I think that positive message is more important for those from elsewhere looking to do business in our city. For those of us here in town, the costs and challenges of doing business should be viewed relative to the local and current context.
The context is this: there has been a lot of discussion about the state of the economy and concern for business in the city. People are worried about closures and vacancies, particularly in the downtown.
Often these closures are attributed to a declining oil price and increasing taxes. And while these are certainly factors, it’s important to recognize that running a business is very complex, and — quite frankly — it’s hard.
"Ultimately, Council and staff must foster an attitude of 'How can we help make this work?'"
So when people ask “What can Council do to help?” I want to give an answer that’s more meaningful than simply “invest in economic development” or “cut taxes”. Those steps are needed (and I address them below), but I also want solutions that go deeper and are more tangible.
That means digging into the processes and hands-on interactions between City Hall and people running businesses in the city. Ultimately, Council and staff must foster an attitude of “How can we help make this work?”.
That’s not as straightforward as it sounds, so let’s dig into how we can make it a reality.
Connecting with City Hall
Throughout all my discussions, an underlying theme has emerged: people struggle to navigate the rules, requirements, and processes at City Hall. There are so many things to know and do, many people don’t know where to begin.
Right now when someone asks “where do I start?” it’s common to be encouraged to reach out to a councillor. And that’s great, but really there are three key entry points: our Business Information Centre at 348 Water St. (which is now called our "Welcome Centre", providing visitor, business and newcomer information); our Development Team in the Planning Department (actually called Planning, Engineering and Regulatory Services); and our Access Centre at City Hall, also known as 311.
Each of these serve important and separate purposes, but frankly that’s a lot of options and it can get confusing. So in order to give the feeling of a single “gateway” for business owners and developers, we have to make sure these three groups are in strong alignment and work together on behalf of those they serve.
Objective 1: Increase awareness of our Welcome Centre and Business Information Services and make it the primary source for all business-related inquiries
- Develop a campaign to promote Business Information Centre
- This is currently in progress
Objective 2: Ensure there's good alignment between the three main "business contact points"
- Hold regular meetings between Business Services, Development Team, and Access Centre personnel to ensure all have accurate and up to date information for businesses and developers
The Business Permit Process
When I was informed that I didn’t have — but needed — an occupancy permit, I immediately went to the City’s website to apply. This is where I had the biggest eye-opener.
After quite a bit of searching (including a look through our Business Guide), I felt I kind of understood what I had to do, but still needed confirmation. That’s because the application form is actually called a “Building/Development Application” which doesn’t sound like what I needed at all. Wouldn’t I need an “Occupancy Permit Application”? (By the way, you can get that application form here.)
This made it painfully obvious to me that our permit process needs to be more “user-friendly”, and that it would have to start with the alignment of departments I mentioned above. But more than that, we need to make sure the steps are well-labeled, clearly defined, and as simple (and limited in number) as possible.
Objective 3: Clarify and maximize the efficiency of the permit process for businesses
- Reduce the number and clarify the names of steps and requirements
- Develop a “roadmap” or similar easy-to-follow listing of steps
Objective 4: Review and revamp the City’s Business Guide
- Set up a working group that includes small business owners to review and update the Guide
- Note: The document is currently reviewed every year for accuracy
The Development Permit Process
Our process for developers to get permits is one of our most publicly discussed (and complex) challenges. While the process needs the same kind of attention as that for business owners as noted above, developers have specific needs.
Looking at the many permit processes and associated fees is important, but we also have to look closely at our regulations and the interactions that take place between developers, City staff, and Council.
From my conversations with staff, the main cause of delay and frustration seems to be that, even with larger, well-resourced projects, application forms are filled out incorrectly or incompletely meaning lengthy and costly back-and-forth between City and developer.
This can be tackled in two ways: 1) make the process easier to understand; and 2) foster an approach and attitude of “let’s make this work” (rather than “here are the obstacles you’ll face”). Both of these are currently being worked on by City staff through an ongoing initiative called “Continuous Improvement”, or CI.
Objective 5: Review and update permit processes for developers to improve speed and clarity
- Identify processes and steps that have the potential to become a “CI project”
- This is actually a massive project. So far we have only scratched the surface with 2 or 3 CI projects ongoing for permitting and development. This will take a long time (hence "continuous"), but see point 4 below.
- Write a plain-language overview of the application process
- Develop plain-language overviews of code, heritage, and regulations
- Write a blog post explaining our Continuous Improvement program and describe the projects completed or currently underway related to permitting
Objective 6: Foster a culture of “Let’s Make This Work”
- Define what is meant by “Let’s Make This Work”
- My personal view is that it means effectively collaborating with the applicant in a shared effort to help them achieve their objective.
- Implement an internal initiative to create awareness and shift attitudes
- This is the most complicated and sensitive suggestion that I have. I've learned through my time on Council and in working with staff that it is extremely important to be frank with developers and not sugar coat what's required. If they will have hurdles to face to do a rezoning or to address storm water detention, for example, it has to be laid out clearly so there are no false expectations. What I'm aiming at here is for Council and staff to "keep it real" while also remaining as positive and supportive as possible.
- I speak to this in more detail below in "A Culture of Collaboration"
A lot of the public discussion about the business community has focused on the city’s downtown core. Although part of the reason for this is the special attachment many of us have to the area, I think it has more to do with the high concentration of businesses in a highly visible area.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that our downtown is important and there is a strong argument to be made that it deserves special attention. All of the initiatives I’ve noted above will directly support downtown businesses, so to ensure they are successful, Council has to focus on coordinating with our downtown partners such as the Downtown St. John’s (DTSJ) Business Improvement Area board.
Objective 7: Improve coordination with and support of downtown businesses
- Encourage and participate in the development of a shared vision for the downtown
Support the Downtown St. John’s Business Improvement Area (BIA) board
- Our new Municipal Plan calls for "neighbourhood plans" and the downtown will be the first one. The terms of reference for this initiaitve will be completed this year
Build on positive partnerships and promotion of Water Street Infrastructure Project
- Re-establish the DTSJ Joint Liaison Committee with regular meetings
- Continue support for the #LoveDowntown initiative
- Collaborate on beautification and clean-up programs
Continue to enable, support, and organize downtown festivals and events
- Utilize mailing list and meetings to keep owners and public informed
- The City regular supports events via our Special Events Advisory Comittee
- You can see Downtown St. John's events listing at lovedowntownstjohns.com
Objective 8: Foster appropriate development with supports, incentives, and clear guidelines
Explore the creation of a "downtown renovation grants" incentive program
- Implement the paid parking management plan and provide “parking relief” for new developments in dense areas
Promote new height allowances in upcoming development regulations
Expand the downtown “intensification area” to waive development fees for more projects
- Similar to our heritage incentives and DTSJ's Façade Improvement Program
A Special Note on Water Street
You’ve probably heard and seen that there is road construction happening on Water Street this spring for the second year in row. It’s called the “Water Street Infrastructure Project”, or the “Little Dig”.
Actually, a lot of media has referred to it as the “Big Dig” but the fact of the matter is that when this project was first conceived, around 2013, it was going to be much more extensive and invasive than it currently is.
That’s because when the City first announced the project business owners in the area got very nervous, and understandably so. Road work such as this can have a serious impact on businesses, and there are plenty of stories from across Canada of streets “dying” because the project prevented or discouraged people from visiting shops, bars and restaurants.
Recognizing these business owners’ concerns, I made it one of my principal objectives as a councillor to ensure there was a very robust consultation and engagement process. We formed a “stakeholders group” of business association representatives, City staff, and our engineering consultant, to help guide the process.
We have been having regular meetings with this group and with all business owners since then. This has helped all involved to better understand what’s required for shared success, and has led to several actions from the City to help mitigate the project’s impact. Here are just a few examples:
- Held multiple meetings with business owners and the public, which continue to take place throughout all phases of the project;
- Delayed the project start by one year to help ensure the City and the business owners were properly prepared;
- Decided on a “trenchless technology” approach which would require less tear up of streets and sidewalk, thus enabling continuous vehicular and pedestrian traffic flow;
- Created a “Business Liaison” position to provide a single point of contact (who has authority to make decisions) for business owners, staff, and the construction company;
- Set a tight timeline with incentives and fines to encourage the construction company to meet a pre-Canada Day, peak-tourism season deadline (which worked well last year and we expect it to work again this year);
- Adjusted traffic flow plans in Phase II based on feedback from Phase I
- Set up a “signage committee” to help ensure the section of street under construction is more welcoming to pedestrians while promoting businesses in the area
I’m very proud of the efforts and accomplishments to date and believe we can apply a lot of the lessons learned to other roadwork and engagement processes throughout the city.
The Costs of Doing Business
We recently underwent the City’s most lengthy and robust budget engagement process in the lead up to the 2019 budget announcement. As Council Lead of the Finance file, I made this my priority and I’m pleased with the outcome.
The process began with a blog post I wrote in June 2018 that described a coming budget challenge. Essentially, because it was the beginning of a three-year cycle which used updated property assessments, we were forecasting a mill rate increase.
While we managed to keep the increase as low as possible, commercial property owners were hit the hardest because in addition to the mill rate, many of their property values went up as well.
There was an understandable outcry from the business community, so it’s clear Council needs more direct engagement with the business community. Through our City-Business Roundtable group and other means, we will discuss whether we can do things differently, for example by adjusting the ratio between the two mill rates (commercial and residential) which currently sits at just under 3.4 to 1, respectively.
Council has committed to doing what we can to maintain the current mill rates for the next two years. Here are some of the steps Council is already undertaking or that I suggest we do to reduce the cost of running City Hall.
Objective 9: Reduce the cost of government to avoid further tax increases
- Continue our policy of salary and benefit restraint for all employees
- Grow our Continuous Improvement program to include more employees and projects
- Review services with potential for outsourcing
- Review budget programs (again) for further spending cuts
- Lobby government(s) to avoid or defer major expense increases such as for the Riverhead Wastewater Treatment
It is very important to keep costs under control at City Hall, but sometimes increases are unavoidable. That’s why it’s also critical for us to be aware of our role in ensuring our residents and business owners can actually afford to live and work here.
That’s where “Economic Development” comes in - initiatives that support a vibrant economy that leads to a high quality of life for all those who live, visit, and do business in the city. We actually do a lot in this area, and the majority of it is through partnership because it’s high-level, big picture stuff that requires attention, coordination, and long-term thinking.
Our guiding document is currently called Strategic Economic Roadmap 2021. It’s under review right now and we will develop a new plan based on today’s context and things we learn from the current Roadmap.
Many initiatives support economic development, even if they’re not specifically focused on it. The City’s overarching Strategic Plan is designed to help align these various initiatives, and the Economic Roadmap is an important component of that. You can get a sense of what we’re doing in the following objective.
Objective 10: Grow the economy and tax base
The following is a list of examples only and is not a complete picture of everything the City is working on.
- Review and Update the Strategic Economic Roadmap (underway)
- Strengthen City Hall’s role in supporting tourism
- Encourage immigration and help newcomers to settle
- We have a Local Immigration Partnership to “help newcomers fully engage in all aspects of social, economic, and cultural life”
- Recently launched MyNewStJohns.ca to help newcomers easily find and access existing programs and services in the city.
- Work to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
- We are currently working on a shared approach with our partners to ensure when someone calls looking for information about setting up a business or investing in the St. John’s region, we’re all “speaking the same language” and can connect them with the best people and information
- Reduce Red Tape
- Most of what I spoke about in previous sections is really “red tape reduction” but it bears repeating as a more efficient City Hall means our economy can be more nimble and vibrant
- We have implemented and are steadily expanding our Continuous Improvement program at City Hall which specifically looks to eliminate waste in all operations
- We’re in the final stage of approving our modernized development regulations which will give developers more clarity as to what, where, and how they can build
A Culture of Collaboration
When I first began working on this “Business Friendliness” project, I came across a report by McKinsey called How to Make a City Great, and one sentence really struck me: “Key to successful economic development campaigns is the attitude that investors and businesses are the city’s clients and the city must do what it can to help them thrive.”
I’ve listed a number of ways in which City Hall can become more “friendly” to business, but ultimately what I and that report’s author are talking about is the building of a culture of collaboration. One that’s more enthusiastic about and encouraging to the folks who are working to make things happen in our city.
That’s really what we should be aiming for. We need a culture at the City and in the city that gets excited about positive solutions to issues. That means asking “how can we work together to make this happen” instead of simply “here are all the obstacles you’ll have to face”.
"How do we empower a group of already-friendly and helpful staff? By sharing stories, concerns, and ideas."
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. In my own dealings with City staff, and from the many stories I hear from people who interact with them, we really do have smart, caring, and helpful people who take their jobs seriously. They agree that business is important and that their objective is to help them get through the process.
So, how do we better empower a group of already-friendly and helpful staff? The answer is to bring everyone together to share stories, concerns, and ideas so we can develop better processes and policies to speed things up and make everyone’s lives easier.
With that in mind, please join me in this effort by sharing your stories, your thoughts, and suggestions. You can do so in the comments section below, on my Facebook Page, or you can send me an email at email@example.com. I — and many others — would love to hear from you.
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