LARGO — If you drive north on Clearwater-Largo Road, you will pass a child care facility shortly after you cross West Bay Drive. It will be on your left. But you probably won't see it because four trees are blocking the sign.
"People don't even know we exist here," said Jerry D'Souza, owner of Montessori Preparatory of Belleair, in a video viewed last week by the City Commission.
D'Souza was among 52 local businesspeople to respond to Largo's efforts to hear what's right — and wrong — about how the city interacts with businesses.
The two-month outreach effort, loosely labeled Largo's "business-friendly initiative," solicited comments from local businesses with one goal in mind, according to city officials: to make Largo one of the most business-friendly communities in Pinellas County.
City staffers presented their findings to the commission last week and highlighted several common concerns and recommendations that came from talks with local businesses in April and May. Among them were the following:
• Complaints about repetitive processes, or situations in which different city departments did not communicate.
• Requests for a city ombudsman, a full-time employee who would help applicants navigate the various permitting processes.
• Requests to relax city ordinances, particularly those restricting signs, and not view city code as "black and white."
• Requests for the city to put its permitting processes online so that applicants can track their progress.
City commissioners said these concerns were the same ones they had been hearing anecdotally and said they look forward to implementing changes to address them, even potentially costly ones.
"There will be follow-through," Mayor Pat Gerard said to staff at Tuesday night's commission work session. "Because otherwise, you're going to be hearing from us every week."
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The ombudsman idea is one that Commissioner Woody Brown has brought up in the past, and Largo actually had one on staff until the last ombudsman left last fall. However, that person's role didn't seem to match what the business community has in mind, so community development director Carol Stricklin said city staff will look at re-filling the ombudsman role and adding a customer-service staff person as well to address complaints.
Some of the recommendations will have costs associated with them, particularly putting the permitting processes online. That software could cost $500,000, Stricklin said, but Gerard said it's a necessity.
"It's something that we've needed to do for a long time," she said.
People who participated in the city's outreach effort said they were just happy to see Largo making the effort, and they said they hope their recommendations don't end up on a shelf, collecting dust.
"The only thing that we're asking for is that when we approach somebody at the city, that we approach this as partners," said Michael Barody, executive director of Regal Palms Premier Assisted Living. "We're not saying throw the code book out the window, … but let's try to figure out how to make it work for everybody."
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Largo is in the midst of an 18-month review of its codes, but the oft-criticized sign ordinance will not be up for review until the fall, Stricklin said.
Gerard was on the commission when it passed the stricter sign ordinance in 2007 and is reluctant to consider overhauling it, despite all the carping from businesses.
"I don't think it's something that we're willing to go all the way back on," Gerard said. "If you've got a sign and people can find you, then it's not my fault your business is not a success."
That is not going to make D'Souza happy. Largo trimmed the four crape myrtles in front of Montessori Preparatory last week, but D'Souza wants the trees, planted as part of a Clearwater-Largo Road beautification project in 2008, gone.
Short of that, D'Souza, who opened the school in 2000 and owns several other businesses, said he wouldn't consider opening another business in Largo.
"They're trying," he said. "But I think they've got a lot of work to do."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]