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Greensboro Strives to Put the Service in Development Services

March 7, 2011
City aims to speed development approvals by having all planning services under one roof.

When it comes to industrial expansion or relocation projects, Greensboro, N.C., Assistant City Manager of Economic Development Andy Scott has learned that time is of the essence.

"If we can do anything on our end to reduce the amount of time and the trouble and expense of the review process, it's something to our benefit, because that makes us more competitive with other locations," Scott says. The city had that objective in mind when it established the Greensboro Development Services Center earlier this year. The center consolidates the city's key technical-review, permitting and building-inspections staff members from three separate buildings into one. Staff members from every department needed to approve a development plan are available Monday through Friday mornings to review sketch plans and hold technical-review committee meetings.
Andy Scott: The city wanted to take "some of the pain and uncertainty out of the review process."
"Any day that you have an issue, between 8 in the morning and noon, you can go to development services and all of the relevant departments are represented and you can be heard," Scott explains. "So instead of just having once-a-week [plan] submission, we have a rolling submission." Thanks to the one-stop approval structure, a review process that previously might have taken a month or more can be completed in a matter of days, according to the city. "What we were looking for was, 'How do we take some of the pain and uncertainty out of the review process for the builder, the developer or the property owner?'" Scott explains. "'How do we make it more efficient, how do we have fewer people touch the plan, and how do we get better decisions faster?'" The upgrades to the development-approval process go beyond the fact that previously siloed city staff members now are under one roof. Coinciding with the new centralized facility, the city now offers:
  • Pre-development meetings that allow any interested party to obtain zoning information on how a piece of property can be developed for commercial or residential construction.
  • Electronic plan submission and review. Thanks to an interactive whiteboard with touch-screen technology, city staff members can project, review and edit a developer's plan on-screen, so a developer can leave the meeting with a revised plan in hand.
The electronic process also means developers no longer have to submit 14 copies of multiple pages, which was the average number for development plans, Scott adds. "Developers and engineers pretty much agree that it cost about $700 in reproduction costs to do that," Scott explains. "By moving to electronic-plans transfer, we save a lot of time and a lot of energy and lot of trees." Cross-training to Boost Efficiency Scott points out that the city already had "very aggressive" customer service goals in place for its technical-review committee and building-plan review process "but chose not to change those in the first year [of the new center] because we didn't want people to feel pressured." "We wanted them to learn the system," Scott says. Long-term, though, the city aims "to get even more aggressive with our turnaround times, because ultimately the test of this is more efficiency on our end and better turnaround times on the customer's end," he says. One way that the city will try to boost efficiency is by cross-training employees. "One of the other issues that we had when we were more siloed, and I'll use planning as an example because I know more about that than some of the others, waswe had individual silos within the silo," says Scott, who served as the city's director of Housing and Community Development (now the Department of Planning and Community Development) from 1993 to early 2009. "So if your job to review plans was landscaping, you did landscaping. And then for zoning, you passed it onto somebody else, and for setbacks you passed it on to yet another person. So in planning you might have three or four different people look at the same plan. "Our goal is to do enough cross-training that 75% of the time one person from planning, one person from transportation, one or two at most from water resources, would look at the plan." The city also hopes that the centralized work environment will promote collaboration among those involved in the development-approval process. "Having all these folks working together on a daily basis and getting to know each other and each other's issues instead of being in separate offices spread across the city, that's making better problem-solvers of them," Scott says. Reputation Matters With the new Development Services Center, city officials hope to make it easier for contractors and residents to do business with the city. And that, hopefully, will make a positive impact on Greensboro's economic development efforts. "There's a small stable of economic development consultants who control the majority of industrial relocation, and you generally pick up a reputation for being a good place to work with or not," Scott says. "And anything we can do to enhance that is just that much more helpful."

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