Committee to help Tampa City Hall shake reputation as tough place to do business

Published Feb. 15, 2012

TAMPA — After seven months of study, a committee of city officials and business people with a stake in development delivered a blueprint for change Tuesday at Tampa City Hall.

The Economic Competitiveness Committee, which Mayor Bob Buckhorn appointed, was made up of 17 lawyers, engineers, developers and builders, plus a City Council member and a neighborhood representative. It began meeting in early July and recommended changes with an eye on repairing the city's damaged reputation in the business community.

"Over time," the group said at the start of a 26-page report, "Tampa's development review and permitting process has become confusing, unpredictable, time-consuming, costly, and in some cases onerous for anyone trying to do business in the city."

To fix that, the group recommended changes in three areas:

• Codes and ordinances, which the committee said are disconnected and confusing. It recommended creating a unified development code and technical manual, along with a citywide review aimed at eliminating unnecessary rules.

• Staff and organization. It suggested merging staffs involved in development review into one department and establishing an ombudsman to guide complex projects through the review process.

• Process and technology. Part of this concerns establishing a single process to review permits and creating a more "customer-driven" culture; part calls for improving the city's technology.

"What this report does is give us a great tool to really change the culture, change the process, change the environment down there," said Buckhorn, who often talks about the need to alter Tampa's "economic DNA."

The city has already acted on the last recommendation, and Buckhorn said other changes are coming soon.

In January, the city said it would buy a fully automated electronic permitting system from Accela Automation, a company near San Francisco that provides Web- and cloud-based software applications to government agencies.

The $2.7 million system is replacing a patchwork of old software and is designed to give businesses, homeowners and contractors online access to permitting and licensing information. Among other things, it will allow businesses to apply and pay for permits, submit construction plans electronically, and print approved permits.

"The technology alone will be a massive improvement," said committee and City Council member Lisa Montelione, who works in a small construction firm.

In the next three to four months, Buckhorn plans to move up to two dozen employees who have responsibilities for reviewing development applications out of their current departments — water, stormwater, solid waste, transportation — and over to the city's construction services center, where development and building permits are reviewed. The idea is to make the permit process less fragmented.

Buckhorn also said he could name a new senior administrator to run all things related to development within a week or two. During his campaign for mayor, he promised he would create a new job — deputy mayor for economic opportunity — though he said Tuesday the job may not have that title after all.

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"The powers will be the same," he said. "It just may be called something different. I really do want to empower somebody to take ownership of that permitting and regulatory process."

The stakes are high, said panel member Bob Abberger, managing director of real estate firm Trammell Crow Co.

After gaining a reputation as a difficult place to do business, Tampa lost its competitive edge, and it was no coincidence that it led other areas of Florida in job losses during the recession, Abberger said.

Implementing the plan will take work and further discussion, but Tampa could survive the next downturn in better shape if it manages to change its brand, Abberger said.

"It's bigger than most people realize," he said.