'Cities Mean Business' Program to Help Companies Streamline Permitting

By Reba Campbell
March 31, 2012

When businesses consider opening in a particular area, many factors often influence the decision whether to locate in a specific city or town. Companies need to know that “Cities Mean Business” when it comes to making it easy to do business. 

Cities and towns can be ready for business by streamlining their permitting and licensing processes to be more business-friendly. Three Midlands cities and towns are doing just that. 

In the Town of Lexington, owning or operating a business in town limits became more efficient when the Business and Development Services Center opened in September 2010. The center is housed on the third floor at the town’s Municipal Complex and includes staff from Building Inspections, Business Licensing, Economic Development, Mapping, Zoning and members of the Police Department’s Community Action Team. “The new centralized location has created a smoother process for current and potential business owners as well as staff who are now in close proximity, helping to address any need or concern,” says Britt Poole, Town Administrator. 

In fall 2011, the department added a business license inspector who has made nearly 300 community contacts and been directly responsible for the collection of over $35,000 of business license and permit revenue. 

“The Town of Lexington is always delighted to see businesses choose our community to call home,” says Mayor Randy Halfacre. “Since FY 2010, we have been pleased to have more than 300 businesses open to serve our citizens. We hope through our efforts with the Business and Development Services Center that our business community will continue to grow for years to come.” 

In Sumter, officials knew they had to make improvements to their application process as they struggled with customer wait times averaging 38 days and problems with internal communication, says Sumter Communications, Tourism and Recreation Director Susan Wild. 

The business license department turned to “Kaizen,” a program based on the Japanese word meaning “improvement” or “good change,” to eliminate waste. The goals of the program were to reduce process cycle time and improve customer service throughout the department. 

The efforts paid off, with the business license office establishing a single contact point for customers, speeding up service times, and improving communications among departments, Wild says. 

Customers said they have noticed the changes during recent experiences with the department. “The business license staff was extremely helpful and jumped right on the issues we needed to clear up,” says Marty Atkinson, controller at Sumter Transport Company. “Their office was very busy that day, but their customer service was top notch. They were courteous to everyone in line and took care of each person quickly and professionally. They were a pleasure to deal with.” 

In Columbia, the planning and development department has a Development Center that serves as the conduit for the permitting process. 

“The construction and permitting process has been, and always will be, a basic government service, but that does not mean it has to be provided in a basic way,” says Krista Hampton, director of planning and development services for the City of Columbia. “Innovative thinking combined with organizational leadership can create changes that greatly improve existing services. That was the case with the creation of the Development Center, which has led to an improved process for customers and a better working environment for staff.” The city created the Development Center as a result of substantial internal and external outreach to make the sometimes complex development review process more predictable. 

The Development Center’s approach to construction review and permitting offers benefits that include improved information availability, one point of entry for plan submittal, coordinated plan review and the ability to track the progress of projects. Plus better monitoring of projects improves protection of the community interests the regulations are intended to safeguard. An applicant has one location to visit for information and to drop off plans. Those plans go to a development coordinator who checks them to ensure the submittal is complete. Upon confirmation that all information is present, the applicant gets his coordinator’s contact information and with a project ID. This gives the applicant an ombudsman call on regarding their project. 

The coordinators track the project, troubleshoot problems that may arise, and call the applicant when it is ready for permitting. Customers are aware of the needs of the process because of checklists and informational handouts available both in the office and on the departmental website. 

“The Development Center has transformed what was once a dreaded, confusing process where city staff and customers were adversaries into one that is far more predictable and transparent and the applicant and their coordinator are partners,” says Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.

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