The death of Fort Smith’s prosperity

by The City Wire staff ( 228 views 

“Unreasonable.” “Vindictive!” “They read too many books.” “They avoid common sense.” “Fort Smith is the laughing stock of the state.”

Above is a sampling of the comments I heard from various people to describe their personal experience with Fort Smith’s permitting process to build or renovate real property in Fort Smith.

A couple of months ago I began asking business owners, builders, and subcontractors who had worked with Fort Smith’s building permit approval and inspection processes about their personal experiences working with the city. I have heard all my life how difficult it was to work with the city building department. I was surprised by the number and extent of their negative comments. I didn’t hear one positive comment, literally.

In each conversation I was told stories of unreasonable demands, project time delays, and building inspectors that made projection completion difficult. And each person I spoke with had knowledge of at least one business owner who cancelled plans to build in Fort Smith or built in another community because of the city’s demands.

Yet when I talk with people about our Parks and Recreation Department, our Police Department, our Fire Department, even our Sanitation Department, you will get a few wise cracks, but people are generally complimentary of each of those departments. What is going on in our City Planning and Development Department?

The more questions I asked and the more people I listened to the more I understood this is normal for Fort Smith and has been for decades. So it would be unfair to criticize the city employees who administer the process today. They are just doing what has always been expected of them. The problem, I believe, is further up the command structure.

As I listened to people talk about their experiences, several gave specific illustrations where they had worked in Fort Smith and in Northwest Arkansas. Each explained how simple the building process was in Fayetteville or Springdale or Rogers as compared to Fort Smith. The building process in Northwest Arkansas was less expensive to comply with each city’s requirements and less aggravating to complete. One Northwest Arkansas builder asked rhetorically, “Why would I build in Fort Smith where the costs of development [based on the demands of the city] are significantly more but the value of the completed house is substantially less than a house in Northwest Arkansas?” His point is why would a builder choose to build in a less profitable location.

There is great hoopla when the Chamber announces a business is coming to town or a local business is expanding that will create 100 or 500 jobs. But when a culture exists that systematically kills the projects that would add 5 jobs or 15 jobs over decades, the damage is great. It is a lot like compound interest.

Most adults understand the concept of compound interest and the importance of savings. By saving money consistently in an interest bearing account, over time as the interest income is added into the savings balance and it earns more interest, in 30 years or so you have a large savings account balance. I believe that if our city had developed a culture to help businesses build and expand 30 years ago, Fort Smith would have been as prosperous as Northwest Arkansas. Instead we continually experience stunted growth.

In order to understand the problem, you need to understand certain nuances of what goes on in the permit approval process. We all want a beautiful city with a high quality of life. The city develops a comprehensive plan every 10 years or so. The plan is future looking and generally includes plans for community centers, bike trails, parks, and all the amenities a citizen would like to have. It paints such a great picture of what Fort Smith will look like that nobody would say no to approving the plan. But they fail to plan in as much detail one important factor. How will the city pay for all the public spaces and buildings.

The easiest thing for the city to do is to pass zoning requirements and ordinances that require commercial builders and developers to include most of the niceties they planned for. It is easier than trying to pass a sales tax increase.

An example: Apparently the city believes that to beautify Fort Smith any commercial building or expansion requires the owner plant trees. Sometimes to plant trees the owner will have to jack hammer through a parking lot to get to the dirt required for a tree to survive. This specific requirement aggravated one business owner enough that he chose to build his new building in a neighboring community. It was just one of many added requirements that don’t exist in competing cities that force up building costs.

Another constant theme I repetitively heard was the uncompromising way inspectors enforce the building codes. Common sense instructs the public that building codes are necessary for our safety and protection from less than scrupulous builders and investors. So we can agree that inspectors are important and needed. But when they enforce the building code without flexibility, delays occur and costs go up.

For example, one architect told me a story about how an inspector made a plumber tear out a toilet because it was three-fourths of an inch off the required spacing. I’m not a plumber so my description may be lacking. But what was made clear is that the inspector enforced “the code” not because it was a threat to public safety or limiting access to the toilet. It was just slightly less than an inch off what the code required.

These types of stories seem to be plentiful. Over the decades a culture has developed where city administrators believe in order to do their job well, in the name of “the building code” and the comprehensive plan, they inadvertently drive up building costs, delay approval of building projects, send out uncompromising building inspectors to enforce the code even when it doesn’t make sense. What they fail to consider is that businesses choose how and where to spend their money, not the city. If project owners feel they will not get an appropriate return on investment, they will choose not to invest in a project or choose to relocate. This kills jobs and future growth.

Change in the building permitting and inspection process is needed. I’m not advocating an elimination of common sense and I’m not advocating elimination of laws and regulations that protect the public from fire hazards and other safety issues. I am advocating that we recognize that one of the most important factors to future growth of jobs in Fort Smith is the administration of Fort Smith’s building permit and inspection process. A new mindset is needed where they understand their success is dependent on private business’ choice to locate in Fort Smith. Our city needs to learn to work with business owners, builders, and subcontractors to assist in business growth and expansion to provide economic opportunity in Fort Smith.

If it had not been for the increase in population in our Hispanic community in the last decade, Fort Smith and the surrounding area would not have experienced growth. That would mean for each new child born another being dies or leaves. A large number of those leaving are native born and they leave in order to find a bright future because their home town can’t seem to find a way to provide them viable opportunities. This means our schools are educating our Fort Smith bred and born children with our tax dollars to benefit other towns and other communities. Many parents follow their children when they retire. Finding a way to attract business investment, including the steady growth in small business investments is needed to keep Fort Smith from a slow death.

Fort Smith has a comprehensive plan. But can we honestly claim Fort Smith has a comprehensive vision that provides economic prosperity and opportunity for the future generations of our children?

Let me emphasize that I believe this problem is a not created by the people working in the permitting and building process today. I believe the problem is older than many of them. However I believe we need to update their job descriptions with a line that says “help Fort Smith prosper by finding a way to make the building permit and inspection process in Fort Smith as economically feasible as any town in Northwest Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma.