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Dealing with City Hall: A Case Study

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If the thought of dealing with City Hall gives you acid reflux, take a deep breath, relax, and think about boning up on jujitsu.

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These cleansing breaths are a quick fix if the board of zoning appeals is sitting on your request for a zoning variance or the architectural review board wants you to plant more trees. The reality of these particular situations, while frustrating, is that they are nothing more than signals that your needs and City Hall’s needs are not identical. But there’s room for both sides to emerge victorious.

And, we aren’t kidding about jujitsu. Especially when it comes to heavier local government issues.

Jujitsu is all about the art of gently shifting your opponent’s momentum to your best advantage – leveraging their apparent advantage to your own. At an intellectual level, it isn’t about being adversarial; it’s about negotiating the outcome you want while maintaining a sense of balance and control.

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In Wadsworth, Ohio, every citizen who walks through the front door of City Hall is treated like a customer. “Every member of this administration and every City Hall employee is charged with treating people with the respect and courtesy they deserve,” says Mayor Jim Renacci.

It isn’t easy running a city like the business it is while still trying to retain the charm and grace of a bygone era. Once the epitome of small-town America, Wadsworth’s very charm was its strongest sales point, but over the last decade, it has grown. Fast.

Big-box stores are going up, along with smaller collateral boxes, movieplexes and chain restaurants. All of this comes on top of an established, vibrant city with precious little room to grow and precious resources to share.

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Wadsworth, like many communities, provides its citizens – residential, commercial and industrial – with safety services (police, fire, paramedics) as well as sewer service and trash pickup. It also provides electricity, water, natural gas, cable TV and high-speed DSL connections.

As Wadsworth’s original borders filled up before the growth slowed, the city looked to annexation as a means to create opportunities. But providing city services to newly annexed areas strained an already thin budget that was intended to serve a smaller city, one that did not have big-box stores or movieplexes.

What’s the point? Like all of small-town America, Wadsworth understands that it must manage the inexorable growth headed its way while helping established businesses hold their own. If it doesn’t succeed, Wadsworth could become irrelevant – that town you’d miss if you blinked. The big boxers would find another home. The local businesspeople and residents – the real heart and soul of the community – don’t have such a luxury.

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That’s another way of saying that if you are managing a tire outlet in Wadsworth, you have a lot at stake. But you also have some bargaining power. You pay taxes, you have good jobs to offer and you contribute to the community in other ways. City Hall needs you, and you need City Hall.

Meeting Your Match
Using Wadsworth as a template for other communities across the U.S., see if you can find any similarities.

All businesses, large and small, are treated in an orderly fashion by City Hall in Wadsworth. “If a business, new or existing, comes to us with thoughts of expansion or building an entirely new facility, we first hold a closed-door meeting,” says Mayor Renacci. “In attendance: the applicant, the mayor, the planning director, the city service director, the city safety director, city engineers – everyone who needs to be involved.

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“We need to know immediately what’s on the table, so we can move a project along quickly and efficiently. It is also important to develop a dollar figure early on, so the applicant knows exactly what it’s going to cost to do business in Wadsworth.

“We operate under the principle that neither City Hall nor the business has time for ‘Mickey Mouse’ games. The sooner each side puts all its cards on the table, the faster everything moves,” Renacci says. “We see it as our job to be so absolutely thorough that City Council only needs to rubber stamp the administration’s recommendation.”

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First-Hand Experience
Recently, Tire Kingdom experienced exactly what Renacci is talking about.

“Although some communities prohibit the operation of any business that produces noise or odors, we found Wadsworth to be a willing listener to our thoughts of building a tire outlet there,” says Charlie Zacharias, vice president of real estate for Tire Kingdom.

“Quickly, we learned that our impact fee, between $30,000 and $40,000, was within the budget we set for most of our stores. When a city’s impact fee is 15% to 20% higher than our budget, my radar goes off. That didn’t happen in Wadsworth,” he says.

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Unlike single-outlet dealerships, Tire Kingdom works with four or five “preferred developers” around the country which supply the Florida-based firm with surveyors, engineers and architects, plus a familiarity with the area to be developed.

“When we appeared before the city planning commission, we already knew what the city expected from us,” says Zacharias. “Because we make noise with our impact wrenches, some cities demand a noise survey with our bay doors open and closed. Interestingly, we have learned that a car wash is noisier than an impact wrench.

“A city like Wadsworth wants to know what our setback will be on the lot we have chosen for our new outlet and where the building will sit on the envelope provided,” Zacharias says. “It wants to know what kind of signage we hope to put up. Because we sell tires, they want to know what we are going to do with our scrap casings and our used motor oil.

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“We also knew that Wadsworth wanted to know what our store would look like to passing motorists. Parking was another item that interested Wadsworth’s city planners, along with curb cuts.”

As a result, Tire Kingdom’s project went through the planning commission and council with few, if any, holdups. The store was built and opened on schedule, and both parties are happy with the result. “We employ 15 people with good jobs, and we pay taxes in the $10,000 to $25,000 range,” Zacharias says. “We’re not a Wal-Mart, but for cities around the country like Wadsworth, every tax dollar counts.”

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Through the System
Confirming Tire Kingdom’s experience in his city, Wadsworth City Planning Director Jeff Kaiser offers the following advice to shops everywhere.

“Write down everything you want to do,” he says. “Show us drawings. Show us elevations. Put together the kind of language that helps explain and justify the project or changes you have in mind. It also speeds things along if you can present us with your neighbors’ approval.”

Above all, check a zoning map of the area in which you plan to expand or build, he suggests. If it is zoned residential, but you want to put in a commercial business, you’re facing an uphill battle. A better idea is to look for land that’s already appropriately zoned. Everything will work more smoothly.

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“We’ll need an impact study,” Kaiser offers. “City Hall needs a traffic count if you’re going to build a new location. We’re required to know the effect your new building will have on the movement of traffic. This is not unusual. Also important is the amount of space you plan to provide for parking.”

Kaiser, who worked in Baltimore before coming to Wadsworth, suggests hiring an architect and a civil engineer to represent you. If you are uncomfortable speaking in public and want to make sure that your best interests are properly presented, bring in the hired help.

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“The task is to get your plan in front of the planning commission as soon as possible,” says Kaiser. “Without the information we require, you might not make it to a site-plan review, let alone the full commission. Show us, as clearly as possible, what you plan to do and where you plan to do it.

“We need to know if the soil is adequate to support your structure. We need to know if wetlands are involved. We need to know if something under your building site is involved, say coal mines. That’s why we request that all applicants prepare a professional, preliminary site plan that we can present to the city’s engineers for review.

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“Everyone in City Hall will get a look at your plans,” he said. “This includes the street and water departments, the safety department, the city waste department and the electrical department. Do your homework, come to us prepared, and you’ll discover how readily we’ll accommodate your needs as long as you can accommodate ours. It doesn’t have to be difficult.”

Friend or Foe?
“The good news is that tire stores are a permitted use in most communities,” says Chris Easton, Wadsworth service director. “They have a right to do business in Wadsworth and just about everywhere else. We certainly don’t want to interfere with that.”

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But Easton reminds that not every community is so welcoming. And a retail tire business is one thing, while a wholesale or commercial tire business is another.

One other way Wadsworth works with its local businesses shows both a great deal of good faith and a lot of common sense. Easton said that when paving is required in front of a retail establishment, he writes a letter to each affected business well in advance of the job. “And then we complete the paving at night,” he says. “Our job is to work around the schedule of Wadsworth businesses, not the other way around.”

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At the same time, Easton notes that he is aware that some communities do not permit any type of automotive service business in their town or city. “And some don’t even permit the use of corporate colors on signage,” he says.

There’s that balance thing again.

Zoning Basics
So it is, but that’s what the board of zoning appeals is for. An appropriately zoned business lot for a tire store in Wadsworth may only have 120 feet of frontage, but the would-be tire store owner needs 150 feet for curb cuts – proper ingress and egress, as it’s called. In Wadsworth, the mindset is to do everything possible to grant such a variance, given the awkwardness of old zoning laws.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean your plan will be accepted, but you may receive a conditional use variance. If you plan to build a tire store in a residential area, be prepared for a public hearing. The bulk of any community is residential, so don’t be surprised if the locals want to know every impact your business will have on their lives and property values.

Our suggestion is to approach City Hall with an open mind and a willingness to compromise. City Hall will want you to reveal what types of buffers and screens you are prepared to install between your business and residential interests. Further, it will be concerned about cleanliness, landscaping and architecture. America will no longer tolerate the kind of tire stores we once operated. Keep it clean and green.

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The Tax Man Cometh
To maintain a proper tax balance in any town, revenue has to come from three sources: residential, commercial and industrial. And it is a rather delicate balance.

Only one of those sources gets to vote, yet residents generally produce the least amount of a town’s revenues. At the same time, though, it is a city’s residential base that often attracts businesses to town – and keeps them there.

Although in most communities City Hall is not responsible for school funding, it has a direct connection to the health and wealth of any school system by virtue of its attitude and approach to the commercial and industrial sectors. Happy, successful businesses mean sound, viable schools, which, in turn, mean happy residents.

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“Any fiscally stressed city needs to understand that residents alone can’t always afford to pay the bill for infrastructure improvements,” Easton says. “Commercial and industrial interests must help defray the cost of operating a growing city. We understand that we must do all we can to attract and maintain a good mix of taxpayers in our city.”

Mayor Renacci raises some thought-provoking questions. “Can you think of a town or city that isn’t facing budget issues, is already in a deficit spending mode or is nearly broke? Have you ever seen a school district that doesn’t need more tax money for buildings, teachers and instructional materials?

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“That’s why every tax-paying business, no matter how large or small, is important to City Hall. It all adds up, and we don’t want to lose, nor can we afford to lose, old businesses or new.”

A well-run city needs every business in town to remain financially healthy if for no other reason than the revenue necessary to keep that city relevant. That may sound blunt, but it’s true.

Whether you have one store or 600, it shouldn’t matter. If the community in which you do business is more interested in maintaining the status quo rather than managing growth, your city is already, or soon will be, in an out-of-balance local economy. If that’s the case, it might be time to look for truly greener pastures.

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Patience, Patience
Not every city is like Wadsworth, which seems to go out of its way to cooperate with businesses. Some towns are downright difficult to work with, and we certainly have heard of more than a few where wheels need to be greased, as it were.

The key is to keep your head. Remember what we said earlier about jujitsu and leverage? You don’t need to pound your fist on the desk (all the time) and demand this or that. You don’t need an army of lawyers (necessarily) and you don’t need to be paranoid. But you should also not expect every experience with a government entity to be all peaches and cream.

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You do need to be patient and thorough. Do your homework, and do it right the first time. More importantly, you need to understand fully what it is you want to accomplish, what it will mean to your town and how it will impact (positively and/or negatively) your neighbors. Those are your leverage points.

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