(Times Record (Fort Smith, AR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 25--Better communication in development services, local investment with government projects, building design standards, downtown development and improved safety at railroad crossings were among the topics at a Fort Smith Board of Directors brainstorming session Monday.
Directors initially proposed the new "brainstorming meetings" during a two-day retreat at Mount Magazine State Park in July 2013. The sessions are designed to encourage free-flowing discussion among the city's elected officials.
The first such meeting was held Monday evening at the River Park Events Building, 121 Riverfront Drive. Other brainstorming meetings are scheduled for May 27, Aug. 25 and Oct. 27.
Ward 1 Director Keith Lau posed the first question, asking, "How can we make it easier to do business with the city?"
At-Large Director Philip Merry Jr. suggested having a retired architect or engineer walk prospective business owners through each department at City Hall as they go through the process of setting up shop in Fort Smith, kind of like a tour guide.
All the directors agreed there needs to be better communication between developers, planners, business owners, contractors and inspectors.
At-Large Director Pam Weber said the goal should not be to do away with the city's codes and standards, but to better communicate what those standards are to developers and business owners, possibly by handing them an itemized list before a project starts.
"We have to be willing to say that we're in the business of helping, not picking apart," Weber said.
Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz said the common complaint he had heard from project developers came from inspections.
Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack said the key would be to create new expectations on being more service-oriented -- make clear to inspectors that they are the gatekeepers of code while at the same time giving them tips on how to better communicate.
At-Large Director Kevin Settle suggested keeping a data-driven complaint system from business owners and a log of common violations cited by inspectors in order to cut down on repeated issues in development.
Lau also suggested streamlining the application process for prospective businesses by allowing applications, design changes, permitting and other forms to be available online.
Ward 4 Director George Catsavis suggested picking one particular project that the directors could regularly check up on to ensure the concerns of everyone involved were being addressed. Catsavis suggested the idea as a one-time measure, not as a regular policy.
In other topics, Weber stressed a desire to award more contracts and do more business locally for government projects. Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman suggested having a policy in place to award bids to local companies within 5-10 percent of the lowest bid from an out-of-town company.
The directors agreed there would need to be a cap on the dollar amount. Gosack said he would research the legality of such a policy.
Lau said he would like to see a design standard for new buildings in the city. A standard set of guidelines could cut down on building costs and create a type of "branding" for Fort Smith, he said.
Merry urged the board to come up with some kind of economic consideration for investing in business downtown by way of incentives.
"I believe this town, this board, needs to do something for people trying to make a go of it on Garrison and downtown," Merry said.
Before the session wrapped, Settle stressed the need for some type of safety standard for railroad crossings in the city. He cited concerns with a number of spots in the city where railroad crossings are not marked with signs or lights on top of rocky asphalt.
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders said he believed the board had engaged in "some good discussion."
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