May 11, 2005 - There is an idea floating in and around Oro Valley that the town is a tough place to do business.
No one seems to be sure exactly how long the thought has been out there, who it first occurred to or why, but it applies to big developers, homebuilders and even independent small businesses.
The idea comes up at luncheons, when two heads come together with lowered voices, and ripples through audiences at council meetings, on occasion. And depending on whom is asked, the idea either can ring very true, or be considered totally false.
But the fact that it keeps coming up has spurred several town council members to decide that they want to determine what the problem is and how to address it. They say it is a "perception that Oro Valley is not business friendly," and they want that perception changed.
Council members Terry Parish, Conny Culver and Helen Dankwerth have approached the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association to ask its members what their complaints are and how they can be addressed. Each council member also has been approaching individual businesses and commercial developers to gather the same information.
SAHBA has taken the request to provide feedback and has run with it, calling it a "golden opportunity," and sending out a request to its members to talk to their field workers, architects and engineers about working in Oro Valley.
SAHBA intends to compile a list of the issues for the town and then follow up with the town and report back to its members. SAHBA representative Alex Jácome said that by handling it that way the builders will be able to retain anonymity.
"Sometimes, building departments will retaliate when they think something not so nice is being said about them," Jácome said of wanting to keep individual builders' names out of the conversation.
Jácome said SAHBA applauds the council for its efforts to do something to fix the problem, real or perceived.
There have been a number of issues, over time, he said, with builders shying away from construction in Oro Valley.
"Some council members have been overly protective and listened to a lot of folks who want to be the last ones in. They say 'I'm here, and I don't want anyone coming in after me,'" he said. "It occurs fairly naturally, I think, but it seems to happen more in Oro Valley, particularly because of the great views."
Jácome said that with the public debates that have taken place regarding some commercial developments, for example the 100-acre Oro Valley Marketplace being developed by Vestar Co. at Tangerine and Oracle roads, and with trying to adopt a revised general plan, many in the business community have been left with the impression that Oro Valley is a tough place to get things done.
"It's ongoing, and it's not just Oro Valley, it's all the jurisdictions," he said of issues between town governments and homebuilders.
SAHBA sees it as one of its charges to keep relations between the builders and the local governments in harmony, which is one reason it is seizing this opportunity to work with Oro Valley.
And with the council members now reaching out to homebuilders and asking for ways to change the town's image, Jácome said he is encouraged.
Mayor Paul Loomis has been around the town for a while and said the subject of improving relations between the town and the building community is "one that raises its head continually."
"It's a forever, ongoing conversation," he said, adding that several study sessions have been held over the years to look into it, and there have been repeated discussions among council members about how to address it.
In the past, the council has approached it by looking at improvements that can be made in the community development department, for example, making sure that the department has enough staff and resources to handle the growth.
There have been changes made, including new regular training workshops for developers and businesses owners.
The biggest complaint heard by council members, he said, is about the time it takes to get through the process, and the council has looked repeatedly at what is slowing people down. Loomis said that what they have found is that when people take time to learn the process and turn in complete paperwork the process goes smoothly. However, when things are left incomplete, or assumptions are made, the process is slowed.
"It's a big challenge that we have," Loomis said, adding that he believes if the town can get more builders to "work proactively" with it, as milestones in the development process approach, the problems will lessen.
Parish said SAHBA was first on the list of those to seek feedback from because its members have a lot of experience building in Oro Valley.
"They can show us some areas of redundancy in the procedures. That will save the town money" he said.
The council members are just starting to gather information about the issues businesses have with building in the town, and so they did not have many ideas about how to change the perception.
But Parish said businesses have long complained that they have difficulties building in Oro Valley that they don't have in other towns, and it may be time to re-examine some of the town's procedures.
"It's about streamlining the procedures without lowering our standards," Parish said of the discussion with SAHBA.
Small-business owners are being included in this endeavor, as well, Parish said, because they, too, have brought up issues with Oro Valley's procedures.
Parish said he is hearing complaints from businesses in the town that getting a certificate of occupancy in Oro Valley is difficult, mostly because of inconsistency among inspectors.
He said some of these problems may stem from training issues, with different inspectors looking for different things from the business.
"We've got a great staff, and they take the rules seriously," he said, but he added that it doesn't mean the process can't be improved.
Another problem may be that the town's procedures are just too "onerous" and need to be simplified. Parish said he's not sure exactly where the problem lies, but the constant complaints indicate that something should be done to address it.
"They should know what to expect, know what the rules are," Parish said of business owners. "People are saying they are failing inspections when they already passed the same inspection before."
One day while visiting a business at First Avenue and Oracle Road, Parish said his face was recognized as that of a council member and he spent the following two hours listening to the problems of several of the businesses in the shopping center.
"They have no issue with quality standards, that's why they came to Oro Valley," he said.
"But if they've got a problem, they want to know about it right away so they can address it."
Councilwoman Helen Dankwerth agreed it's not the standards of the town that are in question, but more the consistent application of those standards.
"There has been an ongoing perception of problems, particularly with small business," she said, relating to the requirements that must be met by the owners, what must be done to pass inspections and the timelines and deadlines associated with opening and maintaining a business in town.
Dankwerth spent a day with Oro Valley inspectors, trying to get a grasp on everything that goes into business inspections, permitting and licensing. She said she also has spent time talking with business owners and developers since being elected last year, hearing their concerns.
"There's always some truth on both sides," she said, with town staff often believing complaints are not appropriate and with business owners believing the process really is more difficult in the town.
So, where do the problems lie and how can they be addressed?
Generally, Dankwerth said she believes it is a combination of communication breakdowns happening between all the people who are involved in the process and a need to educate people about that process, particularly small business owners who may be building or opening a location for the first time.
Dankwerth was hesitant to elaborate on the education issue, saying that it is an issue that has been addressed during meetings of the economic development think thank, which will be reporting its findings in June, and she does not want to steal the group's thunder.
In past meetings of the think thank, various small-business mentoring programs and other aid programs had been discussed as possibilities to alleviate what the group members had also reported as a perception of difficulty in doing business with the town.
There are specific examples of how the Oro Valley process can hang up people who have not navigated it before or have gone through it but never had their mistakes pointed out to them.
Dankwerth gave an example she was made aware of through her conversations with staff. She explained that there are permit forms in the town that are the same as ones filled out in Tucson and Pima County. The forms need to be filled out in their entirety in Oro Valley, but there are sections or lines that can be skipped in the other jurisdictions.
The project architects are given three chances to fill out forms correctly, but if, after the fourth time, it is still turned in incomplete, they are charged $47 an hour by the town for work time of staff required to continue going over the forms.
While the architect may be aware of the problem, often the business owner has no idea he or she is being charged the additional amount. It is being incorporated into the overall fees, though. So at the end of the process, the business owner has a higher bill than expected and is left thinking it is costly, both in time and in money, to do business with the town.
Dankwerth suggested that, if the problem with incomplete forms happens, the business owner could be brought to the town along with the architect to be shown where the extra fees are coming from. This, she said, would encourage everyone to learn the process and prevent that communication breakdown.
Culver said she has had people walk up to her in public and tell her they would never open a business in Oro Valley. She said to hear that saddens her.
"People want to open businesses in Oro Valley, and we want them to open a business here, so the key is to find out how we can work better together," she said.
Culver said she has reached out to business owners and developers and has asked them to contact her when they hit a bump in the road. She said she has compiled a running list of problems, some that need to be fixed by the town and others that needed to be addressed by the business.
Culver said the problem, she thinks, is as much in the planning process as it is in the building process, and she said small-business owners are affected more because they do not carry as much "clout" as big developers, are not familiar with the town's policies and cannot afford delays.
For example, she spoke to one person who opened a business in one of the shopping centers on La Cañada Drive who said she was told by one inspector that an electrical outlet she was having installed should be located on one side of the sink, and a week later, a different inspector told her it needed to be moved to the other side.
Culver said these types of problems can cost the owner money and time, which means a lot to a business.
In another example, Culver described a situation in which a business owner had a sign for a store approved, ordered it and had it delivered. However when it got to his business, he was told by a town inspector that it was the wrong size.
She said these types of problems cause a lot of frustration, and frustration is spread throughout the business community. She said she wants to make sure the town's laws are being applied in the same way to every development, all the time.
But, she said, she has found that it is rare when the problems occurring are only the fault of the town, and she believes a better relationship needs to be fostered.
There have been instances, she said, when business owners have promised to comply, in writing, with certain codes and have not lived up to their end of the bargain.
Culver is interested in starting a mentoring program that would designate one person that a small-business owner could go to when navigating the town's processes. She said having the same person providing all the answers will make the process more consistent and will also mean one person is accountable if something goes wrong.
She, like Parish, said building or opening a business anywhere is a complicated process, and she does not believe Oro Valley should change its standards.
Culver said she is in the process of making a list of these concerns and does not know, yet, of any action she would like to see taken to address the perception issue. She said she would like to come up with a list of "consistent inconsistencies," and believes "we are closer to that point than we have ever been."
Terry Vosler, the building safety administrator in Oro Valley, said he has not yet been involved in a conversation with these council members about ways to improve the building process. The department he oversees reviews development plans, issues permits and conducts inspections.
He said, however, that he and SAHBA have had "good, open lines of communication" over the years and he has not received any negative feedback from the organization in some time.
Vosler said that as long as he has been with the town he has been aware of the perception that it is difficult to build there.
He acknowledges that the building process can be "cumbersome."
"But that's why we are a community of excellence. It's why we have high property values and it's what the community wants," he said. "It's because we have such complete processes in place."
He said there are many steps, which include going before a planning and zoning committee and design review board, before a builder ever comes to his counter, and those steps are out of his control.
Vosler said his staff is continually working on ways to improve, and staff members meet weekly to talk about issues. If there is a step that can be eliminated, it is.
And, he said, the department does what it can to lead the development horses to water, including offering one-on-one meetings to help them work out problems in their plans before they are due to the town, and distributing detailed handouts and checklists to guide individuals through the process. It's getting them to drink that has been difficult.
"Unfortunately, not too many people take us up on it," he said.
The building safety department does take customer service seriously, Vosler added, and provides training to its staff on how to best interact with the public. He said the people who work in the department come in contact with individuals who experience a whole range of emotions in reaction to the news they sometimes bear. They ask customers to fill out customer satisfaction surveys, and, Vosler said, of the ones that have been turned in to the town, he believes 99 percent of the feedback has been positive.
"They say, 'We heard it was going to be difficult, but it really wasn't. Thank you,'" he said.
He said he has heard that people believe there could be retribution for giving negative feedback about their experience working with the town, but he said that isn't the case.
In his work with SAHBA, he said, homebuilders have been "blunt and honest" regarding problems they've encountered, and he has tried to hear their concerns and address them appropriately. He said that through regular meetings with SAHBA both perspectives are brought to the table, and he believes that helps to further understanding from both sides.
Vosler said that if business owners and developers asked questions when they didn't understand things and took the time to use the measures the town has in place to address concerns, perhaps at least some of the perception could be dispelled.
Although John Stebbins, the owner of Cowboy Copies in Oro Valley, did encounter some frustration as he went through the permitting process to do tenant improvements almost three years ago, he said he does not buy into the notion that Oro Valley is a difficult place to do business.
Stebbins said he thinks the town staff works hard to apply the town's policies correctly and consistently.
"The town staff are hardworking, dedicated individuals who go to work everyday and do a good job. They don't ever get up in the morning and go to work with the intent to do a poor job," he said.
But, he added, "the environment within which the town staff must work is a difficult one because the staff must, by law, work within the guidelines of the 1996 General Plan while simultaneously having to update it to reflect current circumstances."
Stebbins went on to add that "in addition, the town staff is also adjusting to a new town council and a rapidly growing population. All these things combined make their job difficult and can, at times, result in mixed messages going to town staff, which sometimes leak into the public and cause confusion."
The incredibly fast growth of Oro Valley over the past decade has likely contributed to the perception problem, Stebbins said. "The town is being scrutinized in a way that many towns aren't," he said. "When you have that much growth, that fast, it is inevitable that you will have some conflict, but we must all work together to overcome our differences."
A representative from Meritage Homes, a building corporation that has developed homes in Oro Valley, said he also believes the staff in the town do "a great job."
He added that sitting down with the homebuilders to address concerns is a good idea, although he has not yet been approached.
"It's always nice to hear the community is reaching out to the business people," he said.