A little bureaucracy in government isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can slow processes just enough to create time for contemplation. Mistakes can be avoided that way.
But the amount of bureaucracy that confronted a local businessman who wanted to start a small business in Dunedin is simply mind boggling. It explains why local governments sometimes get a bad reputation with the business community.
When we say "small business," that's a bit of an overstatement. Richard Corley of Indian Rocks Beach wanted to install an automated ice vending machine in the parking lot of the Causeway Center Shopping Plaza on Alt. U.S. 19 at Causeway Boulevard in Dunedin. The machine is about the size of a shopping mall kiosk and would take up three parking spaces against the south wall of the sparsely occupied shopping plaza. A customer would put $1.50 in the machine and get an 18-pound bag of ice or 20 pounds dispensed right into their cooler.
With the support of the shopping center owner, Corley applied to the City of Dunedin for permission to install the machine. According to a St. Petersburg Times story by staff writer Drew Harwell, here is some of what Corley went through.
Corley began by meeting with planning officials to discuss his idea. He had to submit a site plan, sketches and various other documents, including information about how the loss of the three parking spaces would impact the shopping plaza, where vast stretches of the parking lot are empty. He went before the city's Development Review Committee, a group of city staffers that checks out applications for problems and for adherence to city codes. He had to notify property owners within 500 feet of his plans and pay for a notice in the newspaper.
City officials told him to change the color of the canopy on the machine from green to blue and suggested he plant palm trees next to the machine.
Corley's plan was scheduled for a vote by the City Commission. The night before, however, City Manager Rob DiSpirito decided the machine didn't fit the aesthetic the city was seeking to establish along the causeway, which the city plans to improve with new landscaping. Corley's item came up at the commission meeting anyway, but it was postponed until October because the full commission was not present.
So Corley still isn't in business. Believe it or not, Dunedin recently streamlined its approval process for development proposals after hearing complaints from businesses and developers. City officials wanted the process to be friendlier, more helpful, with more guidance offered by the staff. So Corley was experiencing the improved process. And to their credit, planners guided Corley all the way and even warned him that his proposal had only a 50-50 chance of approval.
But Corley had every reason to believe that his simple plan would not offend anyone and would be considered a desirable amenity. Consider:
• There are lots of empty parking spaces in the shopping center.
• The shopping center is far from fancy. It is aging — some would say it is an eyesore — and is occupied primarily by thrift stores, a Dollar General store, a bingo hall and a pub. A small ice machine of the kind often seen outside convenience stores sits right on the sidewalk in front of the Dollar General.
• Causeway Boulevard leads to the beach, so lots of people would probably enjoy having a convenient place to load their coolers with ice.
• The city recently approved a plan for a big marina across Causeway Boulevard, so it doesn't appear that the city wants causeway properties to convert to some purpose other than commercial.
Corley says the process has cost him four months and hundreds of dollars. For an ice machine? Dunedin apparently needs to review its procedures again and figure out a more sensible approach to approving small-scale projects like Corley's.