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Largo revamps its approach to working with businesses

LARGO — When Daniel Lehan wanted to add outdoor dining to the Village Inn on Walsingham Road seven years ago, he hit a major roadblock: the city of Largo.

"It never happened," said Lehan, the Village Inn's general manager at the time. "The project got pulled, because they weren't working with us."

But this summer, as Lehan worked to reopen the Village Inn, which closed in 2010, he said his experiences working with the city were "flawless."

"We got a much different experience and feel from the city than we had experienced seven years earlier," he said.

Largo city government is working to shift its culture by embracing a new "customer-centric" attitude, officials said. Although its business-friendly initiative includes at least $125,000 in proposed facility changes, its main focus is a change in perspective, Community Development Director Carol Stricklin said.

The city began developing a business-friendly customer service initiative in January and has hosted roundtable discussions with business owners to zero in on the needs of the business community.

After speaking with business owners, the city realized it was looking at the business planning process from the wrong perspective, Stricklin said. Now, the staff tries to view things from the perspective of the businesses it deals with.

"People were getting very frustrated because prior to this, business processes were one-size-fits-all," Stricklin said. "Different businesses have different needs and need different approaches."

For example, a large corporation that has its own engineers and frequently opens new locations will need a different form of assistance than a restaurant owner trying to obtain a building permit for the first time, she said.

In order to personalize the way businesses receive help from the city, the economic development division has created an ombudsman position, which Stricklin refers to as a "troubleshooter."

"When somebody comes in and they're going through the permit process, they can go to an advocate within the city that can help solve whatever problem it is," she said.

Jennifer Lantry, owner of O'Shy's Irish Tap House on Clearwater-Largo Road, said she approached the city in March to discuss difficulties she had trying to open her bar. Lantry had to redraw her architectural plans at least four times because she had to present them to different departments individually, she said.

"That was like two weeks wasted," Lantry said. "Meanwhile, I (was) still paying rent on a building I (wasn't) able to start working on."

To address that problem, Largo developed an early-start permitting process based on an existing process in St. Petersburg. With an early-start permit, a business can begin demolition and preparation for construction while its business plans are still under review.

When Lehan planned to reopen the Village Inn, now as its owner, he took advantage of the new early-start process.

"We were able to start seven days ahead while the blueprints were being approved," he said. "We opened up Aug. 1, right on the dot, which was unbelievable."

Jim England, co-owner of England Brothers Construction, said he has been helping Largo revise its development codes to better accommodate businesses. Largo's previous structure used to scare off some potential business owners, he said.

"A lot of businesses were told by other businesses, 'Don't go into Largo, they're horrible to work with,' " England said. "(Largo) has realized they've got a problem, and they are now starting to address it."

England said the city has improved, but it is too early to tell how effective its improvements will be.

At a city work session Tuesday, Stricklin reminded the City Commission that the customer service initiative is an evolving process. She plans to continue reaching out to businesses to determine where the city can improve.

"We see this as an ongoing communication," Stricklin said. "There's not a point where we'll say, 'Okay, we're done.' "

Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or kpark@sptimes.com.

Largo revamps its approach to working with businesses 08/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 5:07pm]
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