Great Falls: ‘You Can’t Do That’ Or ‘How Can We Help You Do That?’

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In a previous article, “A Development Process Advisory Board For Great Falls Makes Sense”, I explored some of the ways a DPARB could be beneficial for growth and development in Great Falls, as it has been in Billings.

Today I want to look at what I consider to be the most important thing our city government and city officials can do to help Great Falls go from struggling to remain stagnant to once again becoming the envy of Montana’s cities.

And here it is in a nutshell:

From the mayor and city commission to the various department heads and other city employees, when dealing with business and development issues the motto and attitude for all city public officials and staff should always be, “How can we serve you and help you succeed?” and not, “You can’t do that!”

We have a ways to go yet in order to instill that attitude into our city government’s bloodstream. It starts at the top, but unfortunately our city commission has missed the mark badly and repeatedly.

The M&D Construction debacle is just one example of why Great Falls has gained the much-deserved reputation of being an anti-business, anti-development community.

M&D Construction moved out of the city when our city commission unanimously voted against a conditional use permit for the company which employed around 30 people.

This anti-business, anti-jobs unanimous decision by the five Great Falls city commissioners, Kelly, Bronson, Moe, Houck and Robinson, against the conditional use permit was made even though City staff, the City Zoning Commission and Neighborhood Council 7 all voted unanimously IN FAVOR of it.

You can find all the sad details about the M&D decision in the minutes, video and further documentation here.

We’ve allowed wealthy old-money elites, who are pals with and campaign donors to sitting city commissioners, to have veto power over local business development and expansion. If this kind of high-level cronyism isn’t stopped once and for all in Great Falls we will never reach our potential.

While I believe we need a radical change in the way we do business and the way our city commission has incompetently and dishonestly operated recently, the changes and continued improvements in policies at the department level, where the rubber meets the road, don’t need to be revolutionary, just based in common sense.

I honestly think we have seen some progress and improvements over the past ten years or so in Great Falls when it comes to our business and development processes. But we can do better, in Some cases a lot better.

Here are three ideas for continued improvement (with plenty more to come):

  • One of the main complaints I’ve heard from developers over the years is that they have to call or visit multiple city departments to mitigate issues for a single project. A better solution would be to have one certain point of contact within the city for development issues. Having one city contact from the beginning stages of a project all the way through completion would help guide the developer through the process and greatly increase customer satisfaction.
  • Streamline the overall development process by improving the project review process. Either do away with the Design Review Board, which is currently suspended, or make it completely optional. The added expense and time involved for developers is an unnecessary burden and hassle for design issues that could be addressed in city code.
  • Make a verifiable document trail signed onto by city staff for every step of the development process required, including inspections and permitting. Having such a record for each project readily available, preferably online, would insure against future disagreements and misunderstandings between city staff/officials and developers. It would also provide accountability and transparency.

The City of Great Falls has undertaken various versions of some of these ideas and others but I don’t think we have made enough solid progress yet. Let’s keep the ball rolling and the ideas for solutions coming.

It all starts at the leadership level and with the right attitude.

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Rick Tryonhttp://www.ricktryon.com
Rick Tryon is an entrepreneur, a singer-songwriter, and is currently serving a four year term as a Great Falls City Commissioner. Helping Montana become an even greater place to live, play and work is Tryon's passion.

1 COMMENT

  1. Another step would be requiring that agency guidance ‘stick.’ In other words, once the planner/regulator commits to a position, that’s it. I’ve heard anecdotally that it is very common for a regulator to say one thing, then later ‘realize’ that was wrong, and require a change, even after money has been spent.

    Of course, sometimes the wrong decision ‘sticks,’ like Adam and Eve on Central Avenue in clear violation of the City’s fancy land use code.

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