Perception matters for new businesses working with the city, said Angela Lawrence, a founder of marketing company AcrobatAnt.
"If it feels intimidating, someone might say, 'I don't even want to try to do that,'" Lawrence said.
She served on a city-created task force last year to brainstorm ideas about how the city can more efficiently serve the needs of budding businesses.
The Business Services Task Force created draft language for a "contract" outlining the rights of new business owners as well as their responsibilities in ensuring the right level of service.
Items included in such a contract should address fair treatment and clearly state turnaround times and fees of city services, among other "rights" for business owners.
The proposed document and other recommendations made by the committee -- including the creation of a new website to help businesses navigate the city permit process -- will be discussed at a council meeting later this month, said city spokeswoman Michelle Allen.
Dawn Warrick, director of the city's planning and economic development department, said putting things in writing helps the city communicate with business owners.
"We're not going to pick and choose how we manage one project versus another," Warrick said. "We have an approach that we take that is a partnership, and there's a role that everyone plays in that partnership, and so putting it out there to share with everyone involved in that process ... is part of that communication that really just helps to demonstrate what our core belief is here at the city, which is providing the best customer service we can and ensuring the safety of those projects."
The task force is one of several recent steps taken by the city to be more business friendly. Mayor Dewey Bartlett worked to establish a new position, development services coordinator, to provide more outreach to the business community.
Crystal Keller has held the position since February 2011.
"I'm the liaison for the permitting process, development services, so when they have already found their location and are ready to start construction, they come to me and I will sit down with them and just make sure that they understand the expectation through the process and what their process will be for their individual project," Keller said.
Taking Care of Business. Crystal Keller (left) and Tammy Fate work to make the City of Tulsa more business-friendly.
COURTESY OF CITY OF TULSA
Tulsa also provides -- free of charge -- demographic information that may be useful to companies deciding where to put a new business.
"I work with retail companies, I work with commercial brokers, developers, business owners that are small, large, it doesn't matter what size, to look for opportunities to expand and grow within Tulsa," said Tammy Fate, the city's retail marketing coordinator, another recently created position.
In addition to offering services to local businesses, Fate -- armed with data from Fort Worth-based Buxton, which describes itself as a customer analytics company -- also reaches out to companies not currently in the city.
"We can run those reports and I can send it to, let's say a particular company, and say, 'Have you thought about Tulsa? This particular area in Tulsa shows you could be a good match.' ... It gives us an opportunity to kind of open that door versus just saying, 'Hey, come to Tulsa.' We can say, we have some data; we have information," Fate said.
Warrick said another change likely coming soon involves the way the city keeps track of construction permits.
After an internal exercise to identify how to be more efficient, the city plans on issuing a request for proposals "to go out and shop for the right kind of system software to support permitting and inspections across the board," Warrick said, calling the current software system "fairly antiquated."
One goal with a new system "is to make the public interface to that system much more transparent and much more accessible, so that people can go in and find out the status of their permit or the permit of the property next to them," Warrick said.
Lawrence said the city deserves some praise for the services they provide, but said some areas can be improved.
"Whenever we were meeting with the other task force members, there were some task force members who had talked about the code process, the building code process, and how it maybe wasn't as clear as it should have been," Lawrence said. "A business has tried to open and realized they didn't meet code ... so they didn't open at all."
When a business doesn't agree with a city decision, they can appeal it. But the group expressed concern that not every business knows about the appeal process.
Lawrence said it's also a two-way street, as business owners must work with contractors and other professionals to take on projects that meet certain standards.
Dwain Midget, part of Mayor Bartlett's management team overseeing community and economic development, said businesses "have to be prepared" to deal with city requirements.
"I know we have been accused of holding up review processes a time or two, when, in fact, it wasn't us, it was the contractor of the business that's trying to get open that hadn't followed through," Midget said, adding, "it's a good idea to put this in writing" so businesses "can see it up front."
Adopting such a document probably wouldn't lead to additional expense by the city, but creating a new business-only website might. However, Lawrence said she thought adopting task force recommendations could pay off in the end.
"I think businesses that were looking at Tulsa as a potential place to open would see it as a business-friendly community from the beginning and have a positive attitude and be more willing to relocate to Tulsa," Lawrence said.
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