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Workplace culture consultant targets dysfunction in city

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“We need to make the city of Springfield easier to work with.”

That was the opening salvo in remarks by Don Harkey, owner and CEO of People Centric Consulting Group LLC, at the Feb. 12 meeting of Springfield City Council.

Appearing during the public comment section of the meeting, Harkey emphasized that the city needs to create a climate that supports growth, rather than placing barriers in the path of entrepreneurs.

“There’s a growing number of entrepreneurs who are frustrated with the city who are sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “Many of those entrepreneurs are investing in other cities.”

It’s a concern some members of council say they’ve heard before. For example, Councilmember Derek Lee, an engineer, said he had firsthand experience with matters being pushed to the city’s legal department instead of to the department that might best handle them.

Limited to a five-minute presentation, Harkey offered a story from his business as an example of the problem he sees in communication between the city and businesses. Over a year ago, he decided to hang a 2-foot-wide sign outside his office at 429 W. Walnut St., and he was told by the city that he would need $3 million worth of insurance coverage to do so.

Harkey said he learned the city had changed the insurance requirement to $1 million in 2019, but he was unable to locate the ordinance. When he approached city personnel about the discrepancy, he said he was told the matter had been elevated to the city attorney’s office and that he would have to purchase the $3 million in coverage or face the closure of his business.

People Centric purchased the insurance at a cost of about $500 per year, he said, but a year later, someone on his team located the 2019 ordinance that changed the coverage requirement to $1 million.

Harkey said the story is indicative of experiences other businesses have had.

“I meet regularly with entrepreneurs in our area, and I hear these types of stories over and over and over again,” he said.

The climate has a chilling effect on entrepreneurship, he said.

“In just the past few months, I’ve spoken to two businesses who planned to develop key parts of downtown who gave up and have since moved their businesses out of the area because they say the city makes it too hard,” he said.

In an interview with Springfield Business Journal after the meeting, Harkey declined to name any of the businesses he had talked to, saying their stories were not his to tell.

Harkey, whose firm consults on workplace leadership and culture, told council there are no heroes or villains in the story.

“Most of the entrepreneurs are reasonable people, and they understand they’ll have challenges and problems to fix; they have codes and standards to follow,” he said. “The consistent message I hear is they’re willing to solve those issues and hope the city is willing to work with them, but they feel all too often the city often works against them.”

He also characterized employees working in the city as professional, reasonable people.

“I don’t think we have a people problem in the city; I think we have a leadership problem,” he said.

It’s not necessary to replace City Council or management, he said.

“What I’m saying is I think there’s something broken within the city culture that makes a responsible employee who makes an honest mistake think to go to the city attorney first before saying, ‘I’m sorry – we’ll make this better,’” he said.

That needs to change, he said.

“I would challenge city leadership to be willing to take risks, build relationships and create a culture so the city becomes an ally that moves at the pace of entrepreneurship,” he said.

Council backing
In response, Lee asked Harkey whether he felt the city’s work to revise its code would correct the culture.

“The code updates are a good step, but code is not culture,” Harkey said. “Culture is going to be being fearless to help, to support and to express opinions.”

Lee said he has been pushing for flexibility.

“I’ve experienced many times where we’ve gone to an attorney instead of an engineer on an engineering issue – where we go to an attorney on a planning issue instead of a planner, and then say, well, we can’t do anything,” he said.

Lee said Harkey’s expertise could be helpful in solving the problem.

City Manager Jason Gage said the city has hired a development project facilitator, Samantha Payne, who works out of his office and is in a position to help with future situations like the ones Harkey described.

“I think she’s well suited for that role and will do an excellent job in that role,” he said.

Gage added that anyone hired to a job wants to do well.

“One of our roles is regulation, and so it’s easy to become a bit of a zealot about regulation,” he said. “At the same time, we have to recognize the impact of that regulation, and so sometimes in a cultural situation we can become blind to that.”

Payne’s work, Gage said, will help by identifying conflicting codes and interpretation issues and bringing them to the city manager’s attention.

Councilmember Callie Carroll said that she has also heard from small-business owners who opt against developing in Springfield because of the types of challenges Harkey described. She asked for his suggestions.

“I think the opportunity is to unleash the entrepreneurs, who are frustrated,” Harkey said, adding these people should be engaged to help solve problems.

In an interview after the meeting, Harkey doubled down on the idea that entrepreneurs are the right people to mobilize to help solve the problems he described. He said he is working to convene a network of entrepreneurs to communicate with city leaders and staff members about problems and potential solutions.

“We won’t invite the press,” he said. “I’m hoping to fill the room with people that have hundreds or thousands of employees as a group.”

Harkey said he has heard from several business leaders with an interest in meeting, but he declined to name them for this story.

Other action items

  • Council greenlighted two rezonings: a 0.1-acre site at 1530 N. Broadway Ave., requested by KDR Real Estate LLC, to residential townhouse from highway commercial for the purpose of building a single-family home, and a 1.26-acre site at 221-227 E. Sunshine St., requested by Sanders Properties LLC, to general retail from office for an unspecified purpose.
  • As a recruitment option for Springfield police officers and firefighters, council approved an ordinance allowing an employee who has resigned or been laid off to be reinstated to a position of the same class within a year of separation.
  • A Type 2 short-term rental at 1412 S. Luster Ave. was approved by a 6-3 vote, with members Monica Horton, Craig Hosmer and Brandon Jenson voting against it without explanation. Type 2 rentals are in a house where the owner does not reside.
  • The city manager was authorized to apply for up to $25 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant program. The funds would develop trails to close gaps in the city’s network.
  • Council also authorized a state revolving fund loan of $5.7 million as well as a Water Quality Incentive Grant and Affordability Grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to fund wastewater infrastructure projects required in a city consent judgment with the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The city will hire and house a planner for its waste district, to be reimbursed fully by the state’s Waste Management Program. The position was previously hired and housed by Greene County, which can no longer accommodate it. It is a full-time professional position at a salary grade of $40,000-$46,000, according to the city’s published pay schedules.

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