Lee’s Summit is trying a new approach to permitting new businesses and building projects or other developments.
It shifted personnel and assignments to create a Development Center that will provide applicants with more guidance from city staff with the goal to make the process more user-friendly.
Applicants will go to the same counter in City Hall, but from there the internal track will be different. Each new endeavor now is assigned to a project manager who’ll be the contact person for the applicant.
Before, they could be shuffling calls between departments, trying to get answers to questions.
Or at pre-application meetings (which were intended to help clear up preliminary questions) an entrepreneur who had an idea for a project, might be seated at a table with a half dozen or more city officials from different departments, each with responsibility for different regulations, zoning, fire safety, police, traffic … the list goes on.
The idea was to have everyone available to give feedback to the applicant on an initial idea. Real estate developers used to building shopping centers or home subdivisions knew the ropes.
For a small businessman, it could be a lonely spot.
“Many small business owners are not familiar with the process found it confusing, or were even intimidated by the process,” said Mark Dunning, newly appointed director of the Development Center.
Dunning joined the city in 1997 as building inspector and steadily advanced in the codes department. He has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering technology and seven years of private sector experience.
“Mark is a proven leader in the organization,” City Manager Steve Arbo said in a prepared statement. “His commitment to customer service and ability to create a successful development environment is critical to our future economic growth.”
Mike Weisneborn, Dawn Bell and Christopher Hughey will be project managers, Angela Wertenberger will be a business service representative and Caroline Wiggins a customer service representative.
The city combined its codes and planning departments on Jan. 21 to accommodate the new plan, with Planning Director Bob McKay leading that department. Dunning had been codes administrator.
Arbo said McKay has served in both capacities in his career.
“We are fortunate to have his skill set and knowledge to make the creation of the Development Center possible,” he said.
Craig Grider, a Lee’s Summit orthodontist, recently got approval for building a new dental office downtown. He said he thinks the plan is a good idea.
“The one thing very lacking was that one go-to person,” Grider said. “Having a guide would be really, really nice.”
He said his experience with all of the individual city employees was very good, but the stumbling block was the overall process.
He said he didn’t fully understand the Planning Commission’s role and hadn’t expected critical questions from commissioners, after going through plan reviews with staff where he believed all the kinks were ironed out.
Dunning said the project managers will try to let applicants know the history of Planning Commission and City Council decisions, for their understanding, but won’t tell them the council will or will not approve a project.
The reorganization is part of a broader city effort to recruit businesses to Lee’s Summit, to expand its tax base and provide jobs.
Assistant City Manager Daren Fristoe was hired by the city in part to meet that goal. He oversees development and human resources.
He has been board chairman of the Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council, owner of a human resources company, chair of the Planning Commission and on the Lee’s Summit 360 subcommittee working on proposals for improving Lee’s Summit’s economic climate.
Fristoe said a frequent comment he’d heard was that it is “difficult to do business with the city.”
“I remember that very well,” Fristoe said.
Fristoe compares the project managers to a sports team’s “utility players” already skilled in several areas. As the program goes forward, they’ll gain more knowledge and be able to provide consistency for applicants, he said.
“We’re creating a one-stop shop for business,” Fristoe said. The city wants to improve its communication with applicants to make it easier for them to get new ventures up and running.
Fristoe said creating the project manager positions were one of the suggestions of the study done by a consulting firm, Springsted Incorporated, which was hired by the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce to study the city’s development processes. (The city had contracted with the Chamber to oversee that research.)
That report didn’t find a lot of fault with the amount of regulations set by Lee’s Summit or find city employees were particularly nasty. Rather, it said the city was similar to other towns in its regulations, but there were areas it could improve to ease friction.
Fristoe said the city will be tracking its turnaround time and other information, so it can gauge the effectiveness of the reorganization.
Also, the city has new web page portal to connect people with resources at City Hall and in the community. It provides links to the Chamber, Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street, Boost Lee’s Summit and the Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council.
The Development Center team will work closely with city planners and other departments so decisions are “in sync,” Fristoe said.
“We’re looking for an outcome where everyone knows the rules of the game,” Fristoe said. “Surprises typically cost money, we’re trying not to surprise them along the way.”