Monday, March 12, 2007

Getting the Kohl's store in Carbondale or why you need a pro-business mayor

I have known the story about economic development in City Hall and our new Kohl's store for a while, but thought it might be interesting to share.

It turns out that Kohl's is expanding into smaller markets and Southern Illinois was slated for one of them and not two. Kohl's sent their development team to town and started looking for a place to sit their new store. Since all the big boxes are in one place, they wanted to go out by the Mall, but there isn't a spot left big enough to build their size of box on Hwy 13.

They found the land that might work (I heard they dumped 1000 dump trucks of dirt out there to fill the back of the lot up), but their corporate play book is to build a sign on the highway, pointing to your site, in thes situations. So, they went and signed a deal to put their sign in the parking lot of the Saturn Dealer. They were ready to build.

Then Kohl's began dealing with the planning and zoning folks at City Hall and were told the building was fine, but they weren't getting their sign on 13. Having been into city hall and talked to the planning and zoning people a few times, they have always been courteous, but they were also bureaucrats who often think their main job is to say "no" to business.

The planning people at city hall and Kohl's went back and forth a few times and they still told Kohl's no to the sign. This is where most businesses coming to Carbondale leave and take their business elsewhere historically, but Kohl's went the extra mile and called the Mayor.

The story as I heard it was that Kohl's called Brad Cole and told him that if they didn't have clearance for their sign by 10 am tomorrow, they were going to Marion. Turns out that zoning hadn't told anyone there was a show stopper issue and were just planning to lose the Kohl's deal over it. The story continues that when Brad went down to planning and asked what the holdup was. Tom Redmond, who had headed planning and zoning for a long time, told Brad they wanted to put a sign on 13, which was against a zoning rule. Turns out they had a spot rented at the Saturn Car dealership, but the zoning rules didn't allow this. Tom has told several people that his position was that if Carbondale allowed Kohl's to have a sign, everyone would want one. But Kohl's has had their sign for several years and no one else has one, so driving Kohl's away because of this issue would have been a mistake.

Soon after Kohl's got clearance for their sign and built their multi-million dollar building. They are now a successful retailer and pumping lots of sales tax dollars into Carbondale. Their sign on 13 is between the bigger Saturn dealer and the wing's place, and doesn't seem to be hurting anyone.

Tom Redmond had retired or been pushed out, depending on who you ask. He is now Sheila campaign manager.

The really good news is that Kohl's building on Giant City Road has helped all the businesses out there. There is a new strip mall was built, that contains Moe's and spots for a couple of other businesses. Kohl's advertising budget helps all their neighbors by bring in more custers to the area.

I'm going to make an assumption that everyone likes having the Carbondale Mall area and big box stores contained in one area. Maybe some people don't like the stores, the mall, the big boxes, but if you are going to have them, it is nice they are all on one place as a car centric destination. I also assume that we are happy to have Kohl's here and producing sale tax, instead of in Marion. That Kohl's sign on 13 has to be the lowest impact sign going, it is in the middle of lots of signs just like it.

For many years, Carbondale has been losing companies like Kohl's because city hall was so incredibly difficult to deal with. For just a few short years we have had a pro-business mayor and look at the results. We are getting our fair share. Our retail spaces are filling up all over the city. A city with the main drags filled, instead of boarded up, is a really good thing.

Your comments are welcome.


Anonymous said...

Your argument is that its good the mayor ignores the zoning rules, rather than trying to re-write them, and that its bad that the head of planning & zoning should ignore the zoning rules? Talk about having it backwards. The zoning rules need to be firmed up and enforced, not ignored. I don't particularly care about a big sign or whatever -- so change that rule. But under no circumstances should cities blythely ignore their own rules. Otherwise, what's the point of having rules in the first place?

And before you ask...yes, cities should be prepared to say good-bye to businesses that try to blackmail them. St. Louis, for example, did the right thing by not paying for the new ballpark.

Peter in Carbondale said...

I have never heard that any rules were broken on the Kohl's sign, unless you want to give us details about that, it would be better to assume you are incorrect.

There are ways around every rule, they are guidelines and not the Ten Commandments.

It is OK to accommodate businesses, when they are going to give you far more then they want in return. The Kohl's sign is a great example of this, Carbondale got a lot and gave up something that doesn't hurt. A great trade.

People who choose to follow bureaucratic rules, instead of common sense, seen to inhabit Southern Illinois in great numbers. Everyone seems to want common sense, instead of the rules, when looking at their own lives. I know I do.

Anonymous said...

Either you're assuming Redmond made up the sign rule wholecloth - which seems unlikely - or its a rule. And when a city makes a rule, they need to follow them. For example, we don't want them to sometimes Mirandize people and sometimes not. Rules exist to that everyone has to play the game the same way. If the rule doesn't match "common sense," you change the rule. But arbitrarily following them is the worst possible thing you could do.

Peter in Carbondale said...

Your argument is sound when you are dealing with people's lives like criminal cases. But this is a civil kind of thing, the bar is lots lower.

These rules can be changed in a verity of ways. Because we haven't heard any complaints about what happened, we can safely assume it was legal and followed the rules.

If you were in business and had dealt with these things, you would know that the rules are as complicated as the IRS tax documents. If you are skilled and knowledgeable about the rules, you can navigate them. Those of us without these skills lean on the city employees to help us. If the city employees do the most sever reading of the rules and don't help, we get stuck.

This is standard mid-level bureaucrat stuff. If the person at city hall is managed to help and is skilled, they can help you understand the rules and do what you want to do by changing very little. If they are managed to not help or unskilled, they just say "NO!" Often just changing what you are asking will give you a good result, but you can't know that without help.

The problem at Carbondale City Hall for many, many years has been the city zoning and planning employees have been managed to say, "NO!" instead of helping people. They are following the letter of the law, but most of them know they could help you figure this out if they wanted to.

How do I know? Because I have been in lots of city hall zoning and planning offices and Carbondale's in the Neil Dillard era was the worst to deal with that I have experienced.

You often have to take your business elsewhere if the city hall people say "NO!" Mostly the city wants people to stay, so this is a bad result.

Thanks for the interesting comments.