There has been a major shift in philosophy at Statesboro City Hall in the past two years, and those connected with the real estate development community are glad to see it.
"The city has taken a proactive approach in the customer service area to promote economic development," said Joey Maxwell, owner of Maxwell Engineering. "Developers feel like they can ask questions without being judged, and the process has been simplified to where it is understandable."
That is precisely what Frank Parker had hoped to accomplish when he accepted the job as city manager in September 2010.
"I have been a developer, and I understand the issues and the hurdles that developers face," Parker said. "As a city government, it is not our job to build obstacles for business people to get around. Our job is to help facilitate what they are trying to accomplish within the ordinances that we have."
One of the processes which has improved and been embraced by the development community is the "right start" meetings that are conducted prior to a developer submitting plans for a commercial or high density residential development.
"The intention of a Right Start meeting is to offer each building permit customer an opportunity to review a building/design concept with all members of the city development team prior to heavily investing in engineering or architectural work and prior to submitting permit applications with the city," said Mandi Cody, director of Planning and Development for the city.
"We strive to identify any issues that the customer may face and work with them to resolve those issues at this early point in the process. Some issues (zoning, variances, etc.) do require Council approval and we walk the customer through that process -giving timelines and assistance. We also advise them of any permits the customer may need from agencies other than the city of Statesboro and make suggestions regarding those submittals to ensure a coordinated and timely permit process."
Laura Marsh is an attorney with the firm of Franklin, Taulbee, Rushing, Snipes, and Marsh. She has represented a large number of developers, contractors, and citizens through the process of permitting and rezoning in the city.
"We have absolutely seen a great change in trying to work with the city," Marsh said. "The changes have been so positive, and the lines of communication are now much, much better. The city is trying to build bridges with developers, instead of setting up walls. They deserve a lot of credit. Both Mandi Cody and Robert Cheshire have just been excellent to work with."
Parker took his position with the city at a time of turmoil. The city and its prior city manager Shane Haynes had parted ways with a settlement of his contract left to be paid. Other employee settlements had been agreed upon, or were in process. Parker inherited a staff with low moral, permeated with anxiety.
"When I took the job, city employees were frightened for their livelihood, uncertain of their future," Parker said. "Uncertainty causes anxiety, and it was rampant. I told each employee that with me, they had a clean slate. We work for the citizens of Statesboro, and if you conduct yourself in a professional way, and perform your duties, we will get along well."
Parker said his job was to facilitate everyone doing their job.
"I don't have the expertise in these different departments that the folks that work in them have, nor do I pretend to," he said. "I defer to their expertise, and have allowed them to do their jobs. There have been improvements in every single department driven by those that work in them. I am extremely proud of what has been accomplished."
City engineer Robert Cheshire said the working environment has taken a 180-degree turn since Parker took the reigns.
"It has been a true philosophical shift," Cheshire said. "Over the past few years, it had been adversarial between the private and public sector. Now there is a true community spirit in which we strive to do the best for the city and for those trying to do business here. It is a servant's heart with a businessman's heart rolled into one. We have not stopped trying to improve and make the building process more user friendly."
Local developer Donald NeSmith does not mince words regarding working with the city.
"It is 120-percent better than it was," he said. "It is more of 'what can I do to help you' instead of 'why not'. It is so much more people friendly and people oriented. Prior to Frank coming on board, it was just a mess. Don't misinterpret, the folks up there are not pushovers, but will bend over backwards to try and make things work out."