Give Johnson City builders more than lip service

Johnson City Press • Oct 8, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Two years have passed since the Johnson City Commission tasked City Manager Pete Peterson with improving the city’s Development Services, given negative feedback from local developers and contractors.

The argument was the city’s reputation of being difficult to work with, hampering its ability to attract and maintain business and foster commercial and residential development.

Vice Mayor Joe Wise says it’s still a problem, and if what we hear in the community is accurate, he’s right.

Local builders, business owners, bankers and attorneys tell us the biggest problem they encounter is inconsistency among various city offices, building inspectors and the fire marshal’s office. One official says one thing, but another follows with something completely different — sometimes within the same office.

Owners are then forced to cope with unexpected expenses, make change orders, redo what they’ve already done and delay their projected openings, sometimes by months.

Then-Mayor David Tomita described the same dynamic in 2017. Wise repeated it when he spoke with Staff Writer David Floyd on Friday.

“I think where the developer or builder is coming from is a sense that those things were true last week when someone was here,” Wise said. “Why couldn’t I hear that then?”

Why indeed.

There seems to be a culture of “no” and a reluctance to look for alternative solutions.

We’ve also heard from people who do similar business in Bristol and Kingsport, where the experience usually is the opposite. They tell us requirements are coordinated and communicated from the outset in a team approach.

By contrast, Wise told Floyd the large number of city officials involved in approving a project in Johnson City make it difficult for builders or developers to determine who they need to approach and the order in which they should talk to them.

So the buzz says it’s far easier and far faster to open a business, renovate or build elsewhere than in Johnson City. Wise told Floyd the city has been issuing fewer building permits of late, which could be because builders are choosing other locations.

The vice mayor wants to change that. His first step was to express his concern last week to city leaders and his fellow commissioners. Wise called for a roundtable discussion among city staff members and several active city builders to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s development processes.

From a public communications viewpoint at least, we’ve seen one strength emerge in the last year — the leadership change in Development Services. Director Preston Mitchell, who joined the city staff last November, appears to know there is a consistency issue and supports the idea of a roundtable.

The city staff should do more listening and learning than explaining in that session. No one is asking the city to ignore building codes, jeopardize safety or hand out favors. They are asking for a reasonable, efficient, fair and expedient process.

Step two should be for the staff to sit down with our neighbors. If things are indeed better coordinated in Kingsport or Bristol, then find out why and how. Working in a vacuum usually amounts to little more than self-assurance.

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