A conversation involving leaders of the business community and city and county government last Thursday was a new and healthy way to address a familiar topic.
For decades, a major issue that’s simmered and occasionally boiled over in Bloomington has centered on the perception that government is not just unhelpful to business, but sometimes downright hostile.
Whether this is true or not, it undeniably is the perception of many.
The perception received support from the Greater Bloomington Business Environment Survey released last week. While about 90 percent of survey respondents said they are satisfied with the success of their business and committed to operating in the Greater Bloomington area for the next five years, less than half said they would recommend to a friend that they open a business here. The reason for that is embodied by the statistic that 57 percent believe local government policy is a negative factor that deters growth and expansion. Translation: starting a business in Bloomington can be a painful process that just hurts more when it’s time to expand.
Typically, this issue has played out in government-sponsored public meetings where one developer at a time goes hat in hand before a tribunal of board members or commissioners. On Thursday, the public conversation on this long-held perception began at a forum at the Monroe Convention Center attended by business leaders and elected officials who shared a stage.
It was a civil, constructive 90 minutes in which business leaders and elected officials started a dialogue about addressing the conflicts, perceived or real.
Lynn Coyne, president of the Bloomington Economic Development Corp., hailed the meeting as “a new model of communicating concerns.”
Mayor John Hamilton noted Bloomington has grown into a place so many people like to live and do business because of dialogue similar to the one Thursday.
County commissioners president Amanda Barge said “we have more in common than we have differences” and added “we have to do a better job with our customer service.”
The conflict between business and government for decades has revolved around customer service in a broad sense. There is nothing new about businesses complaining they don’t know what the rules are when they set out to build something, that local regulators set up seemingly endless negotiations before they’re cleared to build anything, and that they often can’t get answers to what they can and can’t do.
Eric Stolberg, who has led residential and commercial projects through the regulatory process, shared his views about moving the mixed-use Renwick development forward.
“The process was arduous, abusive, took 15 months and cost $250,000,” he said.
Cook Group and Cook Medical President Pete Yonkman had a lot of thoughtful things to say during the forum, including on the topic of clarity. He praised a federal government-level initiative that came out of medical device regulator the FDA in recent years: the least burdensome path to compliance. He said people and organizations want to comply with the regulations, and that “everybody wants to know the rules.”
He said those in business don’t want subjectivity, and he said the city has a “fundamental problem” by regulating through a negotiation process. He stressed he and others in the business community “are not trying to get government off our backs,” just clarity in the rules.
Yonkman also articulated a view of business that’s common, though rarely said out loud.
“Sometimes people think businesses are only advocating for money when what we are really advocating for is the people in our business,” he said. In Cook’s case, that means advocating for 6,000 people so that they can have good jobs, affordable places to live and upward mobility.
These are among the points made in regard to the business vs. government feelings prevalent in the city for decades and more recently spread to county land use decisions outside the city limits. The call for allowing opportunities for businesses that come with predictable rules is not new. Neither are pledges by public officials, especially during campaigns, that such predictability is reasonable and worth pursuing.
But we’ve been talking about it for 20, 30, 40 years. Maybe this new new model of communicating concerns will land on common ground that protects community interests and economic vitality.