Opinion by

Bill McEwen

What happens without fail in every Fresno political race?

The candidates promise to make Fresno business friendly.

How can they not? No one is going to ask for your vote by vowing to make Fresno a living hell to do business in.

Given all the promises, you’d think Fresno would be the most business-friendly place on earth — a Disneyland for entrepreneurs, big and small.

It’s not.

Third-Worst Economic Climate in the Country

A study released Dec. 13 by WalletHub ranked Fresno as the seventh-most “needy” city in the United States. Dragging down Fresno’s ranking was its economic climate: third-worst in the country, trailing only Detroit and Cleveland.

In addition, Fresno’s unemployment rate is 7.8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s nearly double the national average of 4.1%.

A city facing these grim realities should be doing all it can to promote job growth.

But, as Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau wrote in a Fresno Bee op-ed published in February, “the widely held belief on the street is that the city of Fresno is not business-friendly and, indeed, is ‘worse than ever.’ “

Dragging down Fresno’s ranking was its economic climate: third-worst in the country, trailing only Detroit and Cleveland.

Garry Bredefeld, who served on the city council in the late 1990s and returned this year, agrees with Brandau’s assessment.

“The same Planning Department culture that existed 20 years ago is still with us today — the same problems, the same issues,” Bredefeld said. “It’s a culture that says we don’t have to be user friendly or business friendly. And it cannot go on anymore.”

Timelines Backed By Money-Back Guarantee

Bredefeld and Brandau, along with councilman Luis Chavez, are joining with Mayor Lee Brand to roll out a new business-friendly plan in early 2018 that includes a “money-back guarantee.”

Some details need fine tuning. But here is the expectation: Businesses will receive guaranteed completion dates for building permits and site-plan reviews.

If the deadline isn’t met, the applicant will be compensated, perhaps with the return of fees or the waiving of other costs.

“Everything will be online and anybody can see where they are in the permit process,” Chavez said. “They will know which employee is handling their application and what more is needed for approval.

“Right now, we are looking at establishing realistic goals for the Planning Department. We don’t want to set up staff to fail.”

Bredefeld said that putting everything online, where the public can see it, will bring transparency and ensure accountability.

Previous Strong Mayors Didn’t Change Culture

You might remember that former Mayor Ashley Swearengin aggressively tried to make Fresno more business friendly. Her administration convened a task force. It established guidelines for getting things done. But, as Brandau noted in his op-ed and Mayor Lee Brand told me earlier this year, Swearengin failed to change the Planning Department’s culture.

Just as mayors Jim Patterson and Alan Autry failed to change the culture before Swearengin.

What is this culture?

“Right now, we are looking at establishing realistic goals for the Planning Department. We don’t want to set up staff to fail.” — City Councilman Luis Chavez

One that behaves much more like a government bureaucracy that can afford to take its sweet time than a cutting-edge enterprise devoted to customer service and innovation. It’s little wonder that  Fresno often has seen investment and jobs go to smaller Valley cities rolling out the welcome mat: Madera, Clovis, Visalia, Bakersfield.

Indeed, when I interviewed Brand shortly after he was sworn into office, he said the Planning Department had one year to get its act together. If it didn’t, Brand said, “heads will roll.”

Brand’s Backing is the Big Hammer

Getting Brand’s backing for the councilmen’s plan is essential. His support combined with City Hall’s well-thought-out incentives program for new or expanding businesses should give a powerful boost to the local economy.

Those with long memories might recall that this isn’t the first time Bredefeld has pushed for a money-back guarantee.

In fact, the council held hearings and then unanimously passed a business improvement plan during Bredefeld’s first term. It included a money-back guarantee.

What happened?

Mayor Jim Patterson’s administration “put the plan on a shelf somewhere and never implemented it,” Bredefeld says.

Given the council’s and Brand’s united effort to put more people to work, they are sending the Planning Department a loud message.

Next year, City Hall will become business friendly.

Or else.

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4 Responses

  1. Dan

    I’m laughing. Years ago when I worked for the City, the byword was “the City Hall suits come and go and what they say doesn’t matter. We run the City, not them.”

    Reply
  2. Larry

    We’ve needed better planning for 80 years, not business friendliness. We tried that and we ended up with sprawl and a dead downtown. It’s hard to get across town unless you’re going somewhere on the freeway.

    Reply
  3. Arlin Pauler

    The culture of the Planning Department, like any other enterprise, is the agragate of individual people making individual choices.
    Leaders can throw all the words and systems they want at changing a culture, but until a consensus of individuals see what’s in it for them to change the culture, the current culture will stay.
    This is really pretty self evident, but so few leaders get this; perhaps Lee and his colleagues will.
    We can certainly wish them well at it.

    Reply

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