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Looking at planning processes and fees; touring the East Bay

SANTA ROSA -- A list of viable business enhancing proposals, that could help jump start the local Santa Rosa economy and be implemented quickly, is being actively considered by the Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Competitiveness.

Next meeting of the Task Force on Economic Competitiveness

Tuesday, June 14, 7:30 a.m.

Finley Community Center, 2060 West College Ave., Santa Rosa

task force website

While this 12-member advisory group does not have the authority to change city policies, its updates and reports are included in the Economic Development Quarterly Report to the City Council and can appear on the emerging issues list prepared for council members.

Task force recommendations can also be submitted to the council for consideration through the agenda process.

Several ideas have been discussed, including ways to attract new firms and make it easier for businesses to navigate the application, planning and permitting process. Others addressed the need to improve relations between the business community and the city.

“The city can’t wait for long term solutions, we need to move forward as soon as possible with three or four recommendations to make Santa Rosa more competitive,” said Jake Ours, vice mayor of Santa Rosa and chair of the task force at the April meeting.

A suggestion was made that commercial real estate professionals be briefed in detail about Ordinance 3944 adopted last year by the council which addresses easing the permit process for small businesses, extending timeframes for conditional use permits and entitlements, adjusting parking requirements for existing buildings, and creating more flexibility in the commercial zoning code.

Another possibility involves evaluating a proposal to do away with the conditional use requirement, such as at the 90-acre Santa Rosa Business Park, to get businesses up and running faster and by finding ways to get through the punch list of prerequisites more rapidly.

Task force consensus is building around a “concierge” concept that has been circulating around City Hall for some time. It would establish an ombudsman -- perhaps by redefining an existing position in the city manager's office -- that would serve as a single point of contact for businesses.

Task force members believe there is a need to educate commercial real estate professionals and their business clients, as well as property owners, architects and contractors, regarding the ordinance and other updates in city processes.

Part of the problem involves is a lack of public understanding of the changes and improvements that have been made in recent months.

Another short-list idea is a task force recommendation to have North Bay commercial real estate brokers, Sonoma County Alliance members, the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, North Coast Builders Exchange and the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy give overview presentations to their respective members and associates of the newly adopted city rules, ordinances and regulations.

Today there are three key ways to access information about starting a business in Santa Rosa -- via the city’s website, at planning and permitting counters and by working through people in the know.

“Presently, applicants have to make one stop to obtain a business license and another to file for permits. We need to integrate these functions in one user-friendly system, as well as develop a common portal with a checklist of steps required to start a business clearly outlined,” according to David Gouin, director of the city Economic Development and Housing Department.

“If we establish a mechanism for capturing data about those making inquiries, we can know who is considering coming here and approach them to offer our assistance.”

Having a discernable, well-defined fee structure is seen as essential for growth, since some believe there are too many fees, and that fees are too high and unpredictable, which could be a barrier holding some businesses back.

Mr. Ours, task force chairman, appointed a subcommittee to review fee concerns over the next several weeks and to consult with business representatives to identify problems that exist.

Members of the task force say people need to know what the fees are, why they are assessed, how they affect them and the benefits derived from fees – as well as how they compare to other municipalities.

Lisa Wittke Schaffner, executive director of the Sonoma County Alliance, said the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce could set up a buddy program pairing experienced business professionals with newcomers to help them get started.

Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa chamber, seconded this notion saying that it would easy to put together a cadre of members willing to do this, while also helping to recruit companies to come here and generate income for the city.

Paul Schwartz, senior vice president with brokerage Cassidy Turley BT Commercial, recently headed a fact-finding tour of several East Bay cities including Concord, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, Danville and Pleasanton. He, along with four others from Santa Rosa including Councilman John Sawyer, wanted to see what these municipalities are doing to stimulate economic development.

“Our purpose was not just to look at ideal situations, but to understand what is being done to improve planning, processes and strategies. We also wanted to learn about problems cities face and what they go through to accomplish change. Specifically, we looked at things like how they are addressing urban revitalization, particularly within their respective downtowns through urban design, signage and the use of public spaces.”

While on tour, the team met with Gates+Associates, an award-winning, full service landscape, urban design and land-planning firm based in San Ramon.

“These consultants have a worldwide perspective on what works in other cities. The task force will invite David Gates to visit Santa Rosa and share his insights on urban planning and revitalization,” Schwartz said.

The ability to attract more customers and potential retailers to Santa Rosa’s malls and shopping centers is a priority.

“The Simon Property Management Group is planning a multi-million dollar makeover of the Santa Rosa Plaza that includes integrating the mall with the downtown area, making it a better anchor to attract more businesses,” said Kathy Millison, Santa Rosa city manager.

“This is in addition to their announced refurbishment of the Coddingtown Mall. Simon is a major player in the U.S. and sees Santa Rosa as a place to invest.”

Simon is conducting a connectivity study and wishes to upgrade the walkway in back of the mall leading to Railroad Square with a canopy of overhead lights and others along the path along with new benches.

The firm wants to start construction in September, if design approvals and permits are obtained, and plans to complete the work by September 2012. Two-thirds of the improvements will involve aesthetic exterior upgrades, adding a trellis and vines on garages, new signage, public artwork and by creating a more inviting approach and interface to Fourth Street.

“Santa Rosa is a diamond in the rough that needs to be polished,” according to Tanya Narath, executive director, CEO and a fellow of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy.

Part of this branding and marketing process involves choosing a theme to set the city apart, and one that would appeal to shoppers and storeowners alike.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Warren Hedgpeth, principal of Hedgpeth Architects, said: “we need to find ways to personalize the city.”

The next step is to turn a few of these economic improvement ideas into reality in the near term.

While some task force members want an aggressive, proactive program to begin within 30 days, others say it will take months to get things moving. A timeline is being developed.

All believe time is of the essence to initiate at least some of these proposals as a first test of concept.

“We have a lot of good news to talk about these days -- the 100 percent solar powered BoDean Company quarry, a remarkable source of building material for new projects, efficient and cost effective thermal energy at The Geysers, the new upbeat Economic Development Bureau report (showing county home prices are increasing), as well as the news that Sonoma County leads the nation in solar development. Building permits are also up in Santa Rosa, including a number of tenant improvement permits.” Mr. Ours said.

“There are a lot of success stories we should be telling others. We need to do a better job of promoting the positive benefits of living and working here. Communication is an immediate need. Together we can overcome old perceptions and change the business climate of Santa Rosa, the downtown culture and improve relationships between the city and the business community.”