Coalition calls for city regulatory reforms

Improved One Stop and more thorough review of development projects among goals

A coalition of local community development groups has proposed a series of reforms to streamline the city's regulatory processes.

The Minneapolis Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD) submitted a report in December outlining the proposed changes to Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow (1st Ward).

The report calls for City Council oversight hearings on the city's permitting and inspections processes, changes for the Minneapolis One Stop and more complete pre-development review, among other reforms.

The organization represents 27 Minneapolis community development corporations and offers loans to small businesses. It has expertise in helping neighborhood entrepreneurs and affordable-housing developers.

Jim Roth, executive director of MCCD, said business owners and developers face a series of challenges navigating the city's permitting process.

They often hear inconsistent messages from city staff members and inspectors, and are often barraged with last-minute requests before opening their businesses, he said.

&#8220Over the last six months, we have heard a consistent message from our members and from our business clients - that the regulatory system in Minneapolis needs to be fixed,” Roth said, in a prepared statement. &#8220We also keep hearing that the system works better across the river in St. Paul.”

Rocco Forte, director of the city's Regulatory Services department, said the report outlined many of the key challenges of the city's regulatory process.

&#8220I view this as constructive criticism and there is certainly merit to everything [the MCCD] has here,” Forte said. &#8220This system has gotten so big that very few of our citizens can navigate it.”

Forte said the city has already taken some steps to address concerns, including hiring new development coordinators that will serve as the &#8220one point of contact” for a business owner or developer.

The development coordinator would help the applicant navigate the city's process and set timelines for the application to go through each city inspections division, he said.

The changes, however, would be consistent with the department's core values of &#8220safety, health, livability and accountability,” Forte said.

Rybak has made several changes to the city's development process while in office, including the creation the city's new Community Planning and Economic Development department, which merged the city's planning and development arms, among other things, in an effort to make it easier for the business community to work with the city.

The city also launched One Stop, a new resource within Regulatory Services designed to streamline the application process by having representatives from different departments in one room. One Stop is on the third floor of the Public Service Center, 250 S. 4th St.

The MCCD report is critical of One Stop and says it &#8220offers more than it can deliver.”

The consortium of developers has urged the city to designate the One Stop office as the city's ombudsman to help guide business owners and developers through the regulatory process. The MCCD has also called for the creation of new &#8220One Stop” specialists in neighborhood food businesses and affordable housing development.

The city also needs to do a better job marketing &#8220One Stop” to the business and development community since many remain unaware of the new office, according to the MCCD proposal.

The report also urges regulatory officials to create a &#8220regulatory road map” to hand out to business owners when they first approach the city with permit requests, as is done in St. Paul.

&#8220While One Stop is working to overcome the fragmentation that characterizes the current system, Minneapolis regulatory processes still mainly operate in a series of independent silos,” the report stated.

Supporters of One Stop, meanwhile, say it takes time to reengineer complicated city systems.

Steven Bosacker, director of results management for the city, said creating the new resource has required a tremendous amount of interdepartmental work.

Bosacker, who was recently nominated for the city coordinator post, has overseen the development of One Stop.

&#8220The work is not completed. It's an ongoing process,” he said.

Some Southwest business owners, like Alex Woehrlin, owner of Gigi's Caf, 822 W. 36th St., say the proposed reforms are too little, too late.

Woehrlin faced a series of challenges when he opened Gigi's a few years ago. &#8220I swore I'd never open another business in Minneapolis. It's not worth the headache,” he said.

During a site plan review of caf, Woehrlin said he got confusing, and sometimes conflicting, instructions from city inspectors.

&#8220There's not one set of rules, and that's the problem,” he said.

Woehrlin said he knows of other Minneapolis business owners who have shelved expansion plans to avoid hassles with the city. He estimated it costs $150,000 to $200,000 to open a small coffee shop today, compared to about $40,000 a decade ago.

The MCCD and city officials say they hope that's a short-lived problem. Roth is pushing for City Council oversight hearings in January to get these issues aired.