The general manager of community development in Chatham-Kent, John Norton, speaks during an open house about development red tape , February 13, 2019. (Photo courtesy of CK Economic Development Services via Twitter)

Customer service a large focus in removing red tape

Better customer service and communication are needed to progress local community development, according to Chatham-Kent residents who have encountered obstacles due to municipal red tape.

During an open house on reducing red tape Wednesday night at the Civic Centre in Chatham, municipal staff gave a presentation that showcased how Chatham-Kent’s community development department is improving its processes. Residents were also invited to share their personal experiences when it came to business development.

Several ongoing improvements were discussed that are expected to help make the process easier for those looking to develop business in the area, including a website redesign to make it easier to navigate through forms/processes and the introduction of a development standards manual.

However, many speakers said their main concern was with the customer service provided by municipal staff while attempting to get a development process underway.

Brent DeNure and his wife were looking to invest in a derelict building in Chatham-Kent in hopes of turning it around. But according to DeNure, the process was far from easy.

“There was complete disconnect from a desired partner in the municipality,” said DeNure. “Instead, we had a very¬†adversarial experience. One that was weak to non-existent in actual guidance.”

According to DeNure administrative staff would provide him with differentiating information for things like building permit information. He said he eventually wound up hiring a lawyer to defend one of the permits he received — an experience that cost him thousands of dollars. He said he has heard similar stories of misguidance from people looking to invest in the area.

“The frustrations were many. They were completely unnecessary. For anyone to think that Chatham-Kent should be reflected as being a business partner open for business with a big proud flag for business, was not even close to my experience,” said DeNure.

The general manager of community development in Chatham-Kent, John Norton, compared the municipality to a grocery store when it comes to business, however, he added that if you are treated poorly at one grocery store, there are many more you can shop at instead. But for investors looking to build in Chatham-Kent, they have nowhere to turn but the municipal staff on deck.

Norton said that as a manager, one of the biggest challenges he faces is finding municipal staff that are not only qualified for the technical aspects of their role but possess good customer service skills as well.

“What we need to do is find competent trained people with those qualifications and they have to have customer service skills. Trying to find the right person is really difficult,” Norton said. “It presents us with challenges because we don’t have a line up of people with the qualifications in our community already wanting these jobs.”

Norton said the main goals as a municipality are to make sure development happens and to help businesses grow.

Another resident, Kathy Cottingham, was just involved in a development project in Tilbury. She said while trying to build a car wash she faced several roadblocks, including lack of clarity over what permits she needed. She also said there were times when she wasn’t told until the last minute that the permits she had were incorrect.

“We saw some areas that could use some improvement and make the whole process a lot easier for developers, a lot less time consuming and a lot less costly,” said Cottingham.

Although they had grievances to air with the municipality, both Cottingham and DeNure said they have some optimism that things will become easier for people looking to develop in Chatham-Kent. They added that open houses, such as the one Wednesday evening, along with the new members of council, will help make it easier for people to invest in Chatham-Kent

Cottingham said she has noticed a positive shift with the new members of council and was happy that the municipality took the time to put on the open house.

“They’re very receptive to ideas, even moving some ideas forward. I think the whole overall thing was very positive for everyone,” she said.

Anyone who was unable to make it out to the open house can take the red tape reduction survey by clicking here.