CLEARWATER — In April, city leaders appointed 18 specialists to an influential task force that, for the first time in city history, was given this mission:
Improve the city's codes that affect businesses.
Not the most thrilling assignment, was it? But before you stop reading, consider what members said they could accomplish:
Steps to invite in big-business jobs. Lower costs for small-business owners. Less hassle and confusion for homeowners and landlords. Maybe even nicer surroundings for the locals nearby.
On Monday, the Business Task Force gave the City Council its final report: 70 ideas touching on everything from beach hotels to home improvement. If officials put the group's ideas into the city codes, they could transform how local businesses are built and maintained.
Why now? The group wrote that the city is notorious for being "a difficult place to do business." People find city planning "too complicated, time-consuming and expensive." The city code "lends itself to confusion, decision-making roadblocks and misapplication."
The group's members offered the example of the Complete Angler, a bait shop that the city fined for an "unauthorized" fish mural on its building — a case the city lost in federal court. That suit garnered boatloads of bad press, locking in a feeling that the city's laws were senselessly convoluted, a symbol of bureaucrats gone wrong.
So the task force, brainchild of Mayor Frank Hibbard, was formed, with appointees from all walks of life: architects, neighborhood advocates, engineers and representatives from businesses like Frenchy's and the Jolley Trolley.
For four months, they pitched ideas ranging from broad and boundless — "Adopt a culture of being customer-centric" — to laser-beam specific. One idea changes the way the city classifies pavement.
Among the biggest suggested changes: Developers and small-business owners wouldn't have to map out everything to the finest detail in their early plan applications for new projects. For years, businesses have had to hire engineers and architects to help meet that requirement for full plans.
"Applicants were spending $75,000 without even knowing whether they'll get their application approved," said task force chairman Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney and son of the former mayor.
The group wants those detailed plans — for items like landscaping, drainage, parking and signage — to come later in the process.
Also affected is the city's wide-ranging sign code, which restricts how a business can display its name or daily lunch special. When this subject comes up, city officials are quick to show old photos of the cluttered sign forest that once lined Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. The sign code helped clean it up. But the task force said those rules can sometimes go too far.
Under the task force's proposal, businesses would have more flexibility for window signs, awnings, banners and sandwich boards, while vehicle and human signs still would be banned.
And not-for-profit groups could hang banners 10 days before a public event, festival or picnic. Under the code now, those groups have to ask for the city's permission by filling out paperwork, giving a 30-day notice and hoping for approval from the city's special event committee. For a banner.
Aungst laughed. "A lot of this is just common sense."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]