When it comes to the process of opening a business in Santa Rosa County, the county staff should look at themselves, as a whole, in the mirror. That is where the change must start.
At the small-business roundtable hosted by the Navarre Beach Area Chamber and Small Business Development Council of UWF, we listened to people in the various stages of opening their business – and all described the same nightmare that Santa Rosa County is now famous for – being unfriendly to small-business (or large business for that matter). District 4 County Commissioner Dave Piech was in attendance to see how he could help.
We were surprised to hear the stories told. One by one they recalled moments of frustration that included the county losing their building plans, losing papers that would eventually have to be re-done, numerous inspections at a cost to the owner, changes to plans that were previously approved by the county. The business owners described how the process drained their bank accounts and, in some cases left them unable to hire staff because the money was spent complying with the changes.
We have people in this county who want to fulfill a dream of owning their own business, they want to provide shopping choices, restaurant options and services. They want to provide jobs for the ones who live here. They want to give back to their community. All the while, Santa Rosa County is making everyone jump through rings of fire to get there. A guest at the event said it best when she said, “Santa Rosa County should be doing everything they can to get to the ‘yes’ instead of the ‘no.’”
Take for example, the Grey Taproom on the Johnny Huston’s property. Ken Walter said he literally almost had a stroke when he had finally met all requirements and went to the county to get his permit and he was told, sorry – you are not zoned for alcohol sales. In disbelief, he said, “I can sell alcohol at Johnny Huston’s, the Tom Thumb next door can sell alcohol, but this property in between cannot?” Well, the end of the story is – he certainly could sell alcohol from there. And, thank goodness he didn’t have a stroke, although we can surely see why he felt like he could have.
The problem we heard over and over again was a total lack of communication. Each project is assigned a manager from the county, only business owners don’t know about that person and end up calling everyone multiple times to get any answers. The county must send an email immediately notifying the owner of who the project manager at the county is. One liaison – one point of contact – someone to help them along in the process.
The second rule that must be implemented immediately is once the plans are approved – they are approved. The county cannot change the rules in the middle of the game. It costs the owner money and time and potential revenues. Every change mandated by the county triggers a new inspection. Every single inspection costs money from the owner.
Third, the county needs to bring itself into the present day of technology and put all their information online. As Piech suggested, the owner could have a log-in for their project and be able to keep up with everything real time. County staff would have access to the project online and know exactly what problems or holdups are occurring.
Fourth, the entire department needs training in good positive customer service. New business owners do not need to feel as if they are a burden to the department. They are bringing money to the county coffers and jobs to the residents. The staff must be keenly aware their delays cost money and could negatively affect the business opening, hiring of staff and delivery of products or services. The leadership of the department needs their eyes opened. A new culture and attitude is needed.
When entrepreneurs have such a terrible experience just making it through to opening day, they are likely to tell others to go elsewhere – or cut their own losses and go. Please wake up Santa Rosa County – it really isn’t that hard. Be nice, be accessible, be consistent and welcome new businesses.
As seen in the June 6 issue of Navarre Press.
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