Culture needs to change

By Messenger Staff | Published Saturday, January 25, 2014

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It’s a sure bet there’s never been a motion, a second or a vote at any Decatur City Council meeting that said: “Let’s make this a terribly difficult place to build anything.”

But that’s what we’ve got.

The case of H2X hydro-excavating company is just the latest example. The Decatur Economic Development Corp. sought out this company, negotiated with them and agreed to provide more than $200,000 in economic incentives to get them to move their national headquarters here.

Almost two years later, they’re still renting temporary office space.

Understand, the EDC is an arm of the city, funded by a half-cent sales tax. Its directors are appointed by the city council – in fact, three of the five are council members. The executive director and her assistant are city employees, and the city manager, public works director, planning director and other city employees regularly report to the board.

You’d think the EDC and the city would be on the same page.

In reality, it seems that while the EDC is working to get companies to move or expand here, the city is working to make that as difficult as possible.

The process it took to get H2X a building permit was agonizingly slow and complicated. It dragged on so long that the company’s CEO finally wrote the city earlier this month and said he would build elsewhere if there was no progress within a few days.

To his credit, City Manager Brett Shannon stepped up, brought all the parties together and in one morning worked out the details. The permit was to be issued this week.

But it shouldn’t take that.

It shouldn’t take the prospect of losing a company, it shouldn’t take a come-to-Jesus meeting, it shouldn’t take herculean efforts and it certainly shouldn’t take two years just to get someone a permit for a 12,000 square-foot industrial building.

Granted, other factors complicated the H2X deal. But other builders we’ve talked to have similar horror stories. Some will only talk off the record because they still work in Decatur and fear reprisal. Others are happy to be quoted – but this paper can’t print what they would say.

Almost all would rather build elsewhere.

Maybe attitude is the problem – people who move at the speed of government rather than the speed of business, who work against builders rather than with them, and who occasionally go on power trips.

But we’ve also heard glowing praise of city staff in this department.

Maybe it’s that building code – too many i’s to dot and t’s to cross, too much rigid insistence on control and compliance. In one builder’s words, “You need a wheelbarrow to roll all the documents in there.”

But we’ve also heard builders say Decatur’s codes are no better or worse than most other places.

Maybe there’s not one big, smoking gun – but with this much smoke, there must be a fire.

Wherever it is, the city’s leadership needs to find it and fix it, because construction will take the path of least resistance. Just a glance outside the city limits, up and down the highways and in other Wise County communities confirms that projects are indeed going elsewhere.

Construction is good for a city. It creates jobs, brings in people and dollars and tax revenue. It is a visible sign that a place is moving, prosperous and optimistic. That’s why Decatur created an EDC.

Codes, and the people who enforce them, are necessary.

A culture that makes building this difficult is not – and it’s the culture that needs to change.

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