The Baton Rouge development community is heralding the City Hall arrival of former Georgia-Pacific executive Kelvin Hill, who has been hired as an assistant CAO to oversee the parish’s six public works departments. That’s not in the least because of persistent delays in the plan review office that continue to slow the permitting process, particularly in the commercial building sector.
Larry Bankston, executive director of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition, says since the city-parish farmed out some plan review services to a third party—the Terrebonne Parish-based South Central Planning and Development Commission—in January 2018, permitting delays have improved markedly. But they’re still not where they need to be.
“Is it better? Yes,” Bankston says. “Is it fixed? No.”
Difficulty retaining trained employees in the understaffed department of development office remains one of the biggest challenges, says Bankston, who meets monthly with Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and members of her staff to work on the problem. Workers in the department are overworked and underpaid, and routinely quit after being hired, he says.
“They advertise for new ones and they can’t even fill the positions,” Bankston says.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that while the parish now allows SCPDC to conduct expedited plan reviews for a fee, it still requires that complicated plans involving sewer or traffic issues, for instance, be reviewed by the city-parish, where they tend to get bogged down.
Under the terms of the city-parish’s deal with SCPDC, those who pay an additional 10 cents per square foot on residential projects and 15 cents per square foot on commercial projects are guaranteed to have their plans reviewed more quickly. One year into the program, Bankston says turnaround time for SCPDC is now less than a week on average.
“But if it has to go back to the city-parish it takes much longer,” he says.
Having an assistant CAO to help oversee the process should help focus more attention on what has become a hindrance to economic development in the city-parish, says Bankston, who is hopeful that having someone from the private sector in the position will prove especially beneficial.
“We’re very excited he is here,” Bankston says.