The Charlotte Chamber unveiled the results of its annual BusinessFirst survey on Wednesday – and topping the list of items concerning businesses was the permitting and plan review process in Mecklenburg County.
But this wasn’t a surprise to Chamber President Bob Morgan. And he suggested a direct way the Chamber might be able to help frustrated business owners and developers.
“The building standards problem has been around for a long time,” Morgan said as he addressed a crowd of about 50 during the breakfast event at the Chamber’s building in Uptown. “At the top of that department, there is a willingness to provide great customer service. But that desire gets lost further down the chain on the ground level sometimes.”
Joining the permitting problem at the top of the negative column were concerns about the local tax structure, local roads and highways, and the adequacy of K-12 education in the Charlotte region.
Darlene Heater, a chamber volunteer from University City Partners, presented some of the survey results and addressed the response to several concerns.
“The Chamber is continuing to advocate for government programs that support education,” Heater said. She added the Chamber’s Workforce Development and Education Committee meets often with the nonprofit MeckEd, which advocates for education improvement. Heater said some survey respondents complained that high school students weren’t graduating with the skills needed to walk in the door and fill local jobs.
“Some employers told us that these graduates don’t even have the skills for entry-level jobs and that they are coming to them not dressed properly for work, lacking any time management skills and just lacking the basic social skills for interacting with the public or their boss,” Heater added.
She also said the Chamber is working on community campaigns to promote investment in highway infrastructure and praised the success of the opening of Interstate 485 last year. She encouraged the audience to vote in favor of the upcoming state bond referendum, which would fund infrastructure improvement.
On the positive side, businesses said police protection and the quality of local colleges and universities were helpful to the business environment of Charlotte. And for the first time in 2015, the survey also listed the availability of qualified personnel in the region as a major plus.
Turning her remarks back to the biggest complaint, Heater said, “One thing that has consistently been a big issue in our growth is the permitting process, though. It is just one of those things that hasn’t always been very smooth. But the Code Enforcement department has been making improvements and their new one-stop shop certainly provides better service to those who are building large projects, as well as do-it-yourself homeowners.”
On Jan. 8, Code Enforcement and other divisions of the Land Use and Environmental Services Agency hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new customer service center. Heater said this was a good sign of progress.
But Morgan indicated there were still changes that needed to be made.
“We hear horror stories all the time of one electrical inspector coming in to a project and saying it is all fine and another inspector comes the next day and says, ‘What is going on here?’ So there can be that disconnect there between the higher-up desire to serve and the reality of what is happening,” he said.
Ashley Hedrick, the Chamber’s director of industry relations and public policy, also addressed the permitting concerns in her remarks.
“They have done a lot of training for their new employees,” she said. “And the new center makes it a little easier for people to determine where they need to go in the building.”
But all three speakers emphasized that the Chamber wants to help make the process even smoother.
“If you get into a situation where you are experiencing long delays in that process, let the Chamber know; we can sometimes help,” Hedrick added after some audience questions about dealing with delays in the permitting process.
Morgan put a finer point on the topic and added, “We have some influence there so if you and your project are running into problems let us know and maybe we can help. There is another opportunity here to push for the consolidation of city and county services, but this does get into some political turf battles so we will have to wait and see with that.”