Arlington’s vision as pro-business city

ARLINGTON — In the middle of the recession, city officials decided they had to figure out a way to encourage economic development without dipping into city coffers.

Arlington’s general fund took a big hit this year with lagging sales tax revenues. Successful economic activity in the city is the key to maintaining services and keeping city employees on the job, they said.

In a recent question-and-answer session, assistant city administrator Paul Ellis and economic development manager Vic Ericson talked about the city’s efforts to build a business-friendly environment.

Question: Why did you reorganize the way City Hall does business with developers and owners of potential new businesses?

Ellis: Economic development is everybody’s business. That’s sort of our theme. We couldn’t say ‘Woe is me’ anymore. We had to get thrifty, creative and evaluate how we could better help people with their projects.

Q: Are other cities doing this sort of thing?

Ellis: Probably, but we’re setting the bar high for ourselves. In tough times you learn how to be more efficient. For example, we’re preparing to redo our Web site so it’s more user-friendly.

Q: How did you get started with the overall project?

Ellis: We worked on updating land-use ordinances, outdated fee schedules and codes, including simple things, such as making special-use permits easier to obtain for things like weekend car sales lots.

Q: What did city staff have to do?

Ellis: With so many city positions vacant, we all are wearing multiple hats and sharing responsibilities.

Ericson: We trained people to work on their customer service skills and took an objective look at the way we’ve done business in the past. This gave us insight into the holes in our system. We encouraged people to think outside their job descriptions.

Ellis: We developed a team approach in which we bring permit applicants in and offer general information and ideas about what is feasible for them. We are working together to help people succeed instead of sending them from one department at City Hall to another to get answers.

Q: Any response from the business community yet?

Ericson: People are glad to see us working in partnership with them, and we have some good testimonials from business owners. We aren’t changing regulatory or safety codes, but we are working to get government to speak the same language as business. A lot of this is just better communication.

Ellis: Many of us have business backgrounds, which I think helps. Our team approach isn’t perfect. It’s a work in progress, but we want to be on a winning team.

Q: The city has been handing out Cornerstone Awards. What are they?

Ellis: We recognize business owners who are making improvements that make Arlington a more attractive place for everybody. We’ve honored Flowers by George, attorney James Mucklestone, Olson Investments, the School Box and Rocket Alley.

Ericson: Recognition such as this is pretty significant to business owners.

Q: What other ways are community members involved as part of the economic development team?

Ellis: The city has an economic development steering committee made up of various people in Arlington. Among other things, we tour local businesses to learn better what we have in the city and then establish better networks.

Q: What about community volunteers?

Ellis: Volunteers are definitely part of the team. They have helped to fill the gaps during the downturn. We have service clubs, youth groups and individuals working on projects such as park maintenance and emergency services.

Ericson: People in Arlington are proud of their city and are willing to participate, especially in tough times.

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