Fielding several complaints from business owners across the city, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office has pledged to begin the process of making the Urban Development Department more friendly to help streamline permitting and clarify regulations.
Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said the administration would conduct a “comprehensive internal review” of the department, with an emphasis on a “newly defined customer service and business development function.” He said as a part of the process, the department would also be renamed.
The review will include a stakeholder outreach and the new department will launch Oct. 1, he said. Cooper said he also plans to ride along with inspectors to see how they do their jobs and examine whether anything can be done differently.
“The concern is not to be punitive to the employees,” Cooper said. “The employees want to do their jobs well and be efficient.”
Cooper said the changes began when the City Council adopted amendments to the fire and building codes, but promised revisions will continue throughout the year. The changes should help business owners renovate and repurpose older buildings, Cooper said. The administration is currently studying other cities, such as Charleston, S.C., St. Petersburg, Fla. and Louisville, Ky. to see how they addressed similar problems.
Cooper made these announcements on the heels of complaints from one proprietor in particular, whose opening date was delayed about eight months from the time scheduled because of the city’s red tape.
The business owner, who spoke to Lagniappe but requested anonymity, said the building had five or six inspections before it was allowed to open and at one point, five city inspectors were on the property at one time.
She said in her experience, the city is too hard on businesses, especially those looking to renovated historic spaces. For instance, the owner was asked to install an $80,000 sprinkler system to the building only to be told afterward it also needed a new fire escape. Inspectors eventually came back and waived the fire escape requirement, she said.
Many of the delays the owner experienced were caused by issues inspectors had with the exterior. For example, a subcontractor painted an extra line in the parking lot. The owner told inspectors on the first night of Carnival season this year they’d simply paint over it, but inspectors waited two weeks to come back and made multiple subsequent inspections because of the issue, she said.
“They made four trips over the parking line,” she said. “As a taxpayer, I think that’s a waste of money.”
In addition to the sprinkler system, encased sprinkler pipes and a fire hydrant were also required to be added to the building before the business was allowed to open. She said she was lucky to have a landlord willing to pay for these extras, but other small business owners don’t have that luxury.
“As a small business owner, you work out a budget, but no one budgets for a fire suppression system,” she said. “You don’t budget for that when you put together a business plan.”
This business owner also had an issue with some of the requirements of the litter ordinance, specifically when it comes to the dumpster. She said $5,000 to $6,000 was spent pouring a concrete pad for a dumpster enclosure. She was later told rolling cans would have been acceptable in its place, but nobody told her that upfront.
Wes Lambert, owner of Dumbwaiter Restaurant downtown said he had no real complaints about the city, but was concerned about inspections required by the Mobile County Health Department before he opened his restaurant last month.
At one point, Lambert said there were four county health inspectors in his establishment at one time. He also said inspectors told him he’d need a glass partition, or sneeze guard, separating the kitchen from a customer walkway, but different inspectors gave him different height requirements for the partition.
He said he was frustrated by the process and wished new restaurant owners were given a checklist of things to do before they were opened, rather than piecemeal inspections.
MCHD Public Information Officer Cassandra Andrews wrote in an email message that the requirements for opening a new restaurant are all on the MCHD website.
“The Mobile County Health Department recognizes the value of new restaurants and other similar establishments to our community,” she wrote. “The staff of MCHD’s Inspection Services Department try to make it as simple as possible for entrepreneurs to follow the rules set forth by the city, state and federal government.”
Lambert said he was also required to add flood doors to the newly renovated space on Dauphin Street before he opened because he did more than $100,000 in improvements. The flood doors cost an additional $4,000, he said. To his knowledge, the building across from Bienville Square has never flooded, he said. According to the city’s flood map however, Dauphin Street is susceptible to flooding all the way to Joachim Street, a block further west.
Meanwhile, Councilman John Williams reported that the developers of McGowin Park, a massive new retail complex near Hank Aaron Stadium, had no complaints about the Urban Development Department.