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The Value of Development Service Centers

Economic growth and commercial vitality in virtually every city depends on the development community’s ability to work through regulations and procedures as painlessly as possible. Over the past decade the formation of centralized development services in some cities has transformed the often adversarial relationship between city departments and developers. Cities such as Henderson, Nevada have led the way with extraordinary service centers that work in harmony with the development community to streamline and professionalize every aspect of the city/developer interface.

Lincoln’s Progress

As an example of recent progress, in 2008 Lincoln NE Mayor Chris Beutler announced the formation of a development service center (DSC) that would provide “a profound change in the way we do business at City Hall.” With guidance from DSC Coordinator Mike Lang and public works director Greg MacLean, the Mayor has championed the formation of a DSC that will be critical to Lincoln’s development future. Just 2 weeks ago, the Public Building Commission offered its support for space to house staff from Urban Development, Planning, Public Works and Utilities and the Building and Safety Departments. With dedicated employees from each entity, consolidation is well underway

Why is this essential? Very simply, in our community surveys, one of the most obvious areas of negative comment is from developers who cite issues when dealing with municipal agencies, especially when several agencies are accountable for various elements of permitting, regulation and oversight pertaining to commercial or residential development. In many communities this is a source of major conflict and is often referenced as a barrier to economic development. The answer has always been clear – put all the key players in one central location, get them to collaborate, and create a total commitment to service. A single point of contact with ample expertise and the ability to handle any issue allows developers and citizen remodelers to move quickly through the permitting and review process. The days of balkanized public agency fiefdoms must come to an end.

Cities like Lincoln and Henderson are demonstrating how economic development can be facilitated through Mayoral leadership and prudent management of existing programs. With economic constraints predicted to continue in most communities, government agencies must find ways to consolidate and collaborate. Done well, costs will decrease or be moderated, service levels will increase, and overall efficiency/ productivity will grow.

The Development Services Center concept is one of the most important trends occurring in city government, yet far too few have made the transition. For those interested in the process and approach, give Henderson, NV or Lincoln, NE a call. West DesMoines, IA and Phoenix, AZ also have good Development Centers from what I understand. Are you Prepared For Challenge?

  

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John frequently speaks and consults on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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Becoming an Economic Magnet

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at a statewide public relations summit that convened public relations experts who specialize in economic development. Sponsored by the Department of Commerce, it was a terrific group of professionals who impressed me with their dedication and expertise.

My message was simple – the future will be challenging with no simple answers. Public program and service demands, basic operations, and maintenance requirements will combine to outstrip resource availability due to a contracting economy that is seeking a new ‘center.’ While I see growth in years to come, it will be slower and more calculated as people and businesses weigh options and become more conservative. What does this mean for those who champion economic growth in our communities? In my view it means several things.

First, motivating established enterprises to pull up stakes and move to another location will be difficult. The rewards must clearly outweigh the costs (and trauma). Second, competition for new businesses and job creation will be enormous and, as with any competition, differentiation is the key. Classic economic development uses a variety of incentives, including tax breaks, free land, reduced or subsidized utilities, and a host of other attractive options. Certainly, to attract business incentives are important, but in my view they often focus on the wrong things – and some of what is required is not always available.

The central theme of my talk was that INTANGIBLES matter as much as, if not more than, TANGIBLES. Here is a partial list of the tangible factors I shared – all of which business typically seeks:

  • Adequate, reasonably priced and available power and water
  • Incentives – state and local
  • Available land and facilities
  • Supportive lending institutions
  • Reasonable tax rates
  • Competent, stable and available workforce
  • Good supply lines
  • Decent transportation (public, private) and road system
  • Plenty of inexpensive broadband – connectivity to the world
  • Good/ wide spectrum support services
  • Reasonable regulatory environment
  • Strong educational system

There are more, but the point is that many communities can generally provide these and will offer more incentives as the cornucopia of freebies escalates. But what REALLY attracts people?  We know that jobs, affordable/ available housing, support services, recreation, reasonable utility costs, public transportation, and good schools are essential. But what else?

A Search for Peace, Harmony and Stability  

Research and experience in many venues tells me that intangibles matter as much as tangibles. As a business owner, if I can load up on incentives from any number of communities in several states, what factors weigh most heavily in my final decision to relocate?

I believe the following factors are essential. Note that most deal with FEELINGS. 

  • Opportunity
  • Space – the feeling one can get away
  • Acceptance/ feeling of welcome
  • Harmony/ peace
  • Options – the freedom to try new things
  • Support systems (all types)
  • Interested/ caring community/ state

As a trend watcher, I believe the most essential and desired characteristic in the future will be STABILITY – FOR PEOPLE AND BUSINESS. It will drive decisions to move or stay – either from or to a community or from or to a job. 

Our work in economic development must embrace this shift. Businesses and people want stability. Those communities that provide this and other essential intangibles will be more successful in generating economic vitality. This will take new types of community assessments and creative approaches to public relations. Intangibles cost less and generally produce more magnetism. By today’s standards, they are a great bargain.

 

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John frequently speaks and consults on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

Government Freedom

The July-August 2009 issue of The Futurist has an excellent article by Aaron Cohen that raises the question of whether small government is getting too powerful due to the growing number of special districts and other single purpose governments. Excellent sources were cited, including Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute and William Ruger and Jason Sorens of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.  (See Mr. Cohen’s article at www.wfs.org – July/ August issue)

Small Government is Growing Larger

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are 90,000 local governments in the United States, which typically include cities, counties, and townships, but most of these ‘governments’ are single purpose government entities. School districts and special districts, such as highway and improvement districts, would be examples of the latter. The scope and value of local authority and ‘home rule’ has been debated for decades. The prevailing feeling seems to be that the best representative government is local government, due to its proximity to citizens. However, the issue with single purpose entities is that they often do not have the checks and balances inherent in classic democratic government and are often championed by potent special interests with private agendas.

The emergence of special districts and other singular entities originated to address specific local issues that were often multijurisdictional in nature. They provided an opportunity to generate tax revenue, establish local representation and create charters designed to address problems. However, as the author explains, the very nature of these special entities has often created less control and only marginal oversight. More critically, such government entities now far outnumber cities and counties and operate somewhat independently – often taking on a life of their own.

A Freedom Index

For those who have not been introduced to the various indexes that track government influence, the Mercatus Center has a new report that bears review: ‘Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom.” Because government intervention is so subjective and difficult to quantify the report and its research index notes that “freedom, properly understood, can be threatened as much by the weakness of the state as by overbearing state intervention.” For those who wish to review further, the report and its index offers a methodology for measuring how restrictive state and local public policies may be to citizens and rates all 50 states. See www.statepolicyindex.com for more detail.

A question I would raise for readers is, ‘How can local citizens be certain special or single purpose government organizations have relevance and ongoing value?’ Also, ‘What leverage do local citizens have to ensure transparency and accountability in these organizations?’ Please share your thoughts.

 

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is an innovative and dynamic presenter who is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

Rewarding Contrarians

My recent Blog (A Culture of Trust) has generated several comments regarding the value of and rationale for rewarding contrarians. I assume that those who have e-mailed have had bad experiences with contrary personalities and, by their comments, would rather excise them from the organization.

As noted in that Blog, the suggestion to reward contrarians was among a list of recommendations cited in Bennis’ and O’Toole’s Harvard Business Review article A Culture of Candor (P. 54, June 2009). Following their reasoning, the premise is simple – organizational and public trust cannot be generated without open and honest communication, and it must begin with the leadership. To become a cultural norm, all employees must be comfortable with candor before a pervasive spirit of trust grows into a core organization characteristic.

Safety breeds trust

Particularly in the public sector, where employees face public doubt, escalating scrutiny, and a constant barrage of reductions and constrictions, building trust is difficult. Many employees have grown wary of expressing feelings, perspectives, and recommendations, even when their suggestions or observations have merit and could contribute to the agency or community. Due to this, we are losing enormous horsepower from extraordinarily talented people. Somehow, this must change. Being open to new ideas and willing to express thoughts and concerns in a safe environment is essential to efficient, productive government. Whether elected or appointed, creating such an environment is among a public leader’s most important roles.

Enlist the Outspoken

The people in an organization who are fearless about expressing their views or suggesting new concepts are invaluable. The key question pertains to whether they are positive or negative influencers. Of course, there are many malcontents and you must be able to distinguish them from frustrated, expressive but contributory employees. Many are great thinkers who are under-appreciated and who, if invited to engage, can grow into potent elements of the workforce…the key is to ‘enlist’ them in productive dialogue and harness their energy. Many men and women fall into the ‘Alpha’ mode of management and battle these types of people because they are similar to themselves or bring out their insecurities. Rather than enlist individuals with inherent talent, character, and intellect, they battle them and practice exclusive, as opposed to inclusive management.

If you show appreciation for contrarians and provide them an avenue to bring positive change or contribute in meaningful ways, you just might gain enormous support from employees who are influenced by these individuals. They are champions who are brave enough to speak for the majority…the risk takers and therefore the informal leaders. In my experience, while some contrarians are malcontents with little interest in positive outcomes, there are far more dedicated employees who are willing to take risks, voice opinions and share perspectives. As a manager, I want that level of passion and participation. It is my challenge to forge contrarian behavior into energy that leads, contributes, and transforms.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies. Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and organization planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.