Monday, December 9, 2013
By JIM GRATTELO
PORTLAND — There is a breath of fresh air blowing through the city of Portland, and it has all the makings of becoming a whirlwind! I am referring to the Planning Department, the code enforcement office and, most of all, the Planning Board.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Grattelo is president and co-owner of Joker's, Portland Sports Complex and Turf's/Gold Room. He was also the mayor of Biddeford from 1993 to 1997.
It's very clear that a concentrated effort is under way to reverse a 20-year trend of Portland being anti-business, and it's very noticeable. Businesses are no longer being treated as the enemy with money to spend on anything the city desires.
In the past, it has been very difficult for business and contractors to deal with the city. In fact, it was so bad that several contractors refused to bid a project if it was in Portland. My own experience was the same.
Five years ago, it took 60 days to get approval to build a simple 12-by-16 outside deck for our sports pub. The process was so confrontational it was alarming. I felt that as a business, I was the enemy. The process resulted in delays and unnecessary cost overruns.
Today, I can say with confidence this has all changed! My recent experience with the expansion of our sports Dome at the Portland Sports Complex was the accommodating, friendly and team-effort approach that one would expect only if one were working in the private sector.
We had a project, a tight deadline and cost overruns because of site conditions, and every city department worked with us to help us reach our goals. What was so enlightened was that every department took a common-sense approach. It's very clear that change has started at the top and is filtering down.
Economic growth is the lifeblood of any city, and having a Planning Department and Planning Board working together helping business expand and grow is certainly much better than forcing them to look to other communities because of an anti-business climate.
The following are highlights of my experience:
To begin, we are on the outskirts of Portland, half a mile from Westbrook. Most people think we are in Westbrook.
Five contractors put in bids for our project. Two withdrew once they found out we were in Portland, and a third actually added $100,000 to their bid once they found out we were actually in Portland.
They said the delays and cost add-ons would be ridiculous. All five contractors stated we would never open on time because it would take forever for the city approvals.
I decided to request a meeting with the city Planning Department prior to starting the formal submission process to see if our deadline could be met. If not, we would miss the winter indoor season and therefore not build the expansion.
The Planning Department had 12 people at the meeting. Everyone from fire prevention, traffic and zoning administration to planning, public services, etc., was there.
To my surprise, the focus of the meeting quickly turned toward developing a time line and list of concerns necessary to achieve our goal of opening Nov. 1, 2012. I left the meeting shocked.
Instead of the city throwing up roadblocks, they offered ideas and solutions to their stated concerns. "How we can help?" was their approach. Next came the Planning Board meeting, and there was the same level of cooperation. Wow, have times changed.
From our meeting date in March 2012, we were open in a little over six months with a new 18,000-square-foot addition.
Along the way we solved a variety of issues, from fire-related safety concerns to simply meeting the required number of bicycle racks -- together, with a common-sense approach.
For the very first time, I truly felt the city listened to our requirements and concerns and then applied its standards in a way that we both won. The city also worked with us on outstanding issues rather than stopping us from opening until the final punch list was completed.
I hope this common-sense approach continues to trickle down throughout all departments of the city. Working together to find common ground (where have we all heard that before?) on moving this great city forward will spread like wildfire if everyone jumps on board.
– Special to the Press Herald