You know Collier County is a tough place to do business when even the chairman of the chamber of commerce has a hard time with a simple real estate deal.
But as Michael Wynn's experience shows, Collier County is making strides to overcome its anti-business reputation. Last year, the county commission created a new position of hearing examiner that lets property owners bypass the bureaucratic bottleneck of the planning commission and board of zoning appeals. Wynn's deal was the first case to go through the examiner's streamlined process.
Besides being the chairman of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, Wynn is chairman of the Wynn Cos., which operates hardware stores, grocery stores and has interests in real estate throughout the region. Over a year ago, Wynn contracted to buy nearly two acres on U.S. 41 where his company planned to build a 22,000-square-foot hardware store. The lease was expiring at another Wynn-owned hardware store nearby and he felt two years was plenty of time to get through the planning and zoning process to move into a new building.
But Wynn was wrong, because the planning-commission process would have been bogged down by at least six months of hearings without certainty of success. In fact, he almost gave up.
“We did not feel we could get the property developed in time given the expiration of our existing lease,” Wynn says, looking back. “At that point, we passed on the property despite the fact that we could've secured it at the right price.”
In addition to his role at the chamber, Wynn was co-chair of the Partnership for Collier's Future Economy, an economic development organization seeking to find ways to improve the business climate in the Naples area. “These are the types of situations that have caused Collier County to have a bad reputation,” Wynn says. “Time is money.”
But in discussions with Russell Budd, owner of PBS Contractors in Naples, Wynn learned last year about the creation of the new hearing examiner's office. Wynn's hardware store was the first case through that office in the fall and it easily won approval. “Right now we're on schedule to open Jan. 1,” Wynn says.
Wynn says he hopes his case and others pave the way for a better business climate in the recovery. “It shouldn't be a struggle for anyone,” he says.
Collier County commissioners created the position of the hearing examiner in June to make it easier for landowners to petition changes in land use.
While there are hearing examiners in other counties, Collier's is unique because its examiner can communicate with all sides outside the hearing, seek out more evidence on his own and consider any additional evidence.
“Sometimes I shuttle back and forth,” says Mark Strain, who was appointed as the county's first hearing examiner. “It's almost like mediation.”
Importantly, the hearing examiner reports directly to the county commission, not the county manager. The county's staff recommendation on a project is considered evidence, not the final word.
Strain, a general contractor who grew up in California and kayaks long distances to stay fit, worked for one of the top developers in Collier County, Gulf Bay Cos. As vice president of planning for Gulf Bay from 1994 to 2010, Strain oversaw the development of communities such as Fiddler's Creek. He's intimately familiar with the challenges landowners face in Collier. “I know what they've had to do to get there,” he says.
Strain also is chairman of the planning commission, which hears the more complex cases that generate significant public interest. But he says the hearing examiner should consider more routine cases that don't require lengthy hearings that are costly to taxpayers and landowners alike. “Government says no too much,” Strain says.
Rather than approving or denying a project, Strain strives to create consensus. “Compromises are what we should be doing,” says Strain, who will notify landowners if they're missing certain details in their applications. “I'd rather find a solution,” he says.
After considering the evidence in a case, such as a change in use of a property, Strain renders an opinion within a week. He estimates that cuts about two months off the process.
Collier County's tortuous land-use approval process became unwieldy because anti-growth forces in the Naples area demanded a halt to development in prior decades. But the pendulum swung too far, creating a bureaucratic maze that hampered growth and prolonged the recession.
“Prior to the recession we had long, drawn out sessions,” Strain says, noting that the creation of a new administrative code for the county should help streamline the process further.
Strain acknowledges that switching from the private sector to government work has taken some adjustment. “Here it moves really slow,” he chuckles. But he clearly relishes the new position: “I love this job,” he says with a smile.
After about two years of recovery in the residential real estate market, Collier County is starting to see the resurgence of commercial development.
For insight into the Naples market, few people are more plugged in than Russell Budd. As owner of PBS Contractors and Wall Systems, Budd has focused on residential and commercial construction in Naples for more than three decades.
Unlike prior recoveries, commercial development has been slow. “Everything has taken longer in this recovery,” says Budd, whose focus during the downturn primarily was on upscale residential homes.
But commercial construction is starting to pick up again after years in the doldrums. For example, Budd says PBS could see 25% to 50% revenue growth this year from annual revenues of $8 million last year.
“We see the commercial side of our business recovering because there's a lot of land,” Budd says.
In addition, space is being absorbed to the point where developers are considering new construction. “This year there are a lot of projects,” Budd says. Retail and office space are leading the way. “We're doing a lot of office space build-outs,” Budd says. “Industrial is still lagging.”
Budd says economic recoveries are tricky times for construction companies because of wage growth. He's anticipating 20% wage growth in the next year, an estimate he's taking into account when bidding on new jobs. “I've been through these cycles before,” he says. “These are dangerous and difficult times for a contractor.”
Industry. Real estate Issue. Government bureaucracy Key. Collier County streamlines the land-planning process.