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Assessing Fort Worth's Progress: An Initial Follow-Up on Real Estate Development Improvements

In the winter of 2022/2023, the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth presented the City of Fort Worth with ten recommendations aimed at enhancing the local development process. To assess the city's progress in implementing these recommendations, we conducted a follow-up survey among select developers and city staff.


REC of GFW has shared the below insights with City Manager David Cooke and will conduct additional follow-ups later in the year to continue to track improvements.


Preface

We would be remiss not to begin without recognizing the enormous strides Development Services have made and continue to make under the current leadership. Building Permits are averaging under ten working days, and the first Development 101 was very warmly received by the Real Estate/Development Community. There are a whole host of initiatives underway where Development Services continue to display leadership and focus on continuous improvement. REC of GFW continues to encourage City Leadership to extend this positive trajectory to all staff required to accomplish development in Fort Worth, even if those staff are not part of the Development Services department. As we are at the mid-year point, we look forward to continuing to support City Leadership’s efforts in their stated goal of improving the Development environment for both staff and applicants in 2023.


NOTE: Based on requests for additional specificity, REC of GFW hosted an additional discussion session with private survey participants on 6/26. Where relevant, additional commentary has been added to bring specificity and clarity to prior comments captured in the survey.



Key Recommendations and Progress from Survey #1:

Recommendation #1 - "Expand the overwhelmingly positive trajectory within the Development Services Department to all development related departments."
Expanding the Positive Trajectory: Extending Beyond Development Services

An encouraging finding from the survey is the recognition that the positive trajectory observed in the City’s development services department is expanding to other development departments by a majority of city respondents and almost half of the private respondents. However, the written comments indicate this trajectory has not equally extended to all departments required to successfully negotiate the development process. This highlights the opportunity for City Leadership to take a more direct role to ensure this positive trajectory does not stop outside the Development Services department but fully extends to all staff required to accomplish the development process. In other words, the City’s development team is only as strong as its weakest links. Both city and private respondents acknowledged that progress has been made but also stated opportunities to do more remain.



Recommendation #2 - "Instill a culture of problem solving across all departments and down to the customer interface level as is the norm in most cities."
Instilling a Culture of Problem-Solving: Divergent Perspectives

A concerning revelation from the survey is the divergence in perspectives regarding the cultivation of a problem-solving culture. While the city staff expressed optimism about the improvement in this aspect, a slight majority of private respondents indicated that the situation has remained relatively unchanged. Moreover, written comments from city staff potentially raise the question if staff recognize problem-solving as part of their role at the city. REC of GFW speculates that this divergence could be driven by the magnitude of the cultural shift required and that this has not previously been asked of staff in the past. Further feedback from the Fort Worth Chamber and other groups offers that staff need better training on “how to respectfully say no," along with an offer of potential alternative solutions. In particular, the Water Department (Outside Development Services) and Construction Inspectors were highlighted as departments in need of focus in this area. However, REC of GFW recognizes there are many new staff in these two departments who are likely still training.




Recommendation #3 - "Resolve city’s internal process conflicts between departments and remove the expectation that the customer will find a way to resolve them on their own."
Expectation of Conflict Resolution: A Concerning Gap

The expectation of the applicant to take on the burden of resolving issues between departments is uncommon in other municipalities. Typically, municipalities resolve these conflicts internally to present the applicant with a unified direction on behalf of the city. The survey uncovered a concerning gap between city staff and applicants on the state of progress on this key issue. REC speculates that this divergence could be driven by the magnitude of the cultural shift required and that this has not previously been asked of staff in the past. Examples were given, such as TPW and the Water Department giving the applicant conflicting directives but then refusing to discuss these directives with one another to resolve the conflicting directives internally. Other similar examples were given between Legal and stormwater. Water and Real Property, etc.



Recommendation #4 - "Place relevant partner department personnel responsible for commercial development under formal written operational control of the Development Services Department Director."
Removing Silos and Reorganizing Development Staff: Opposing Perceptions

The idea of removing silos and placing development staff under a unified department is a monumental ask and received mixed perceptions. While city staff believed progress has been made, private respondents indicate that the situation has not changed recently. Significant changes were made over a year ago, but the current progress on this front was described as “stagnating” or “at a standstill”. The REC of GFW realized this request's magnitude and expected it would be challenging. REC requests clarity on the current status of this request and any initiatives around it. Further clarity could help drive prioritization of other requests if removing the silos proves unrealistic.



Recommendation #5 - "Employees with development responsibilities should be located on the same floor and in close proximity to the Development Services Department and each other in the new city hall."
Physical Proximity for Development Staff: Wait and See

City staff expressed optimism, attributing improvements to the investment in the new city hall. Private participants report no significant changes at this time. However, the REC of GFW has seen the plans for the Development floor at city hall and is enormously encouraged by the results. Clearly, staff invested a great deal of time and thought into this plan. Staff should be commended for their efforts on this request. REC is hopeful that the plans will be followed through throughout the completion of the new city hall, and this recommendation moves fully into the "Issue Resolved" Column in 2024.



Recommendation #6 - Schedule regular meetings with staff for workflow reviews. Broaden third-party lean process improvements and BPIs for multi-department evaluations to improve procedures and accountability."
Embracing Lean Process Improvement and BPI Meetings: Opportunity to Fine Tune

The survey reveals misaligned perspectives regarding the implementation of Lean Process Improvement and Business Process Improvement (BPI) meetings. City staff expressed frustration, with some citing excessive time spent in improvement meetings while others felt more were needed with departments outside Development Services. This inconsistency emphasizes the need for a balanced approach that maximizes efficiency in meeting the standing goal of continuous improvement across all departments but also is respectful of staff time and not competing for their primary role requires. Additionally, the REC of GFW would like to offer to help the city highlight reports on BPI’s completed in terms of time and dollars saved to better. REC can help the city highlight the time invested by staff and their accomplishments to the Fort Worth real estate community.



Recommendation #7 - "Invest in proven customer service training annually for all city personnel involved in the development process. Ordinances should be enforced not as brick wall, but as a problem to be corrected."
Customer Service Training: Continue to Monitor

City staff state they are investing significant time in training to improve this. It is encouraging to see almost half of the private respondents are observing positive significant changes. However, it might be unrealistic to expect to encounter strong results across all departments this early. We would hope to see an improvement trend where the majority recognize results. In particular, the Water Department (Outside Development Services) and Construction Inspectors were highlighted as departments needing better focus on customer service. However, the REC of GFW recognizes there are many new staff in these two departments who are likely still training. The Fire Department was highlighted as a department that continues to maintain a very high bar for an excellent job with customer service. The Legal Department was highlighted as a department that is displaying significant and recognized improvement.



Recommendation #8 - "The City Manager should host a forum twice a year with all development personnel and the commercial real estate community to discuss and resolve specific items. Progress on resolved items should be tracked in subsequent meetings."
Bi-Annual Forum with David Cooke: Excited about Potential

As the scheduled Bi-Annual Forum with David Cooke has not yet taken place, its potential is not realized. However, early meetings are already scheduled to start bringing this meeting to fruition. It is especially important for David Cooke and City Leadership to take an active role in this forum due to the horizontal arrangement of development functions. REC anticipates that this forum may provide a platform for fruitful discussions and a high likelihood of practical suggestions for continued improvements. The highly successful Development 101 meeting and Development Function Org Chart could help serve as frameworks for these discussions as they do an excellent job of mapping the entire development process across all involved departments.



Recommendation #9 - "Heavy investment in HR retention efforts is needed to support and promote high-performing staff for the cultural shift towards problem-solving. Provide opportunities to advance within departments to avoid talent loss."
HR Improvements: Emergency Focus Highly Suggested

The survey results highlight significant concerns regarding HR improvements. A majority of both city and private respondents express a lack of change with the situation that was previously determined to be a serious cause for concern. The REC of GFW understands there are a number of initiatives concerning modest pay raises to compensate for inflation. However, while compensation plays a role, the feedback valued former employees have shared with REC points to compensation not being the primary reason that they eventually left. The feedback we have received is that these staff enjoyed working very hard for less compensation than they could receive in the private sector or other cities. They truly loved their work. However, they felt the current HR policies did not adequately recognize or reward diligence and initiative, and, therefore, they eventually made the decision that their talents could be better utilized elsewhere where they could “do more good”. We believe this to be the most important cause for concern at this time and would urge the city to have HR more proactively engage with employees to prevent continued losses of the best employees.



Recommendation #10 - "Significant resources should be invested in improving all aspects of Fort Worth's Legal Department's important input as the current process is too slow to be practical."
Legal Department Evaluation: City More Frustrated?

Interestingly, the city respondents appear to recognize less progress than the private side. This could more frustration with the current processes and/or areas that are in need of process standardization as legal continues to integrate into more workflows. Commentary from Private applicants noted recognition of improvements as of late to Legal Department.



Additional Insights: Cultivating a Positive Culture

Overall, the survey reflects broad positivity regarding development services and general opportunities to continue improvements. However, it also highlights the importance of fostering a positive culture. Concerning comments from city staff underscore the need for ongoing efforts to address cultural issues and create an environment that values collaboration across departments and problem-solving with the applicant. We feel the most important area of focus should be on HR. More can be done to support and empower high-performing staff and give them opportunities to advance within departments to support the shift to a culture of problem-solving.



Read the Initial Report:

You can read the initial 2022/2023 Report below:



 

About the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth

The Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth (REC of GFW) is the unified voice for the commercial real estate profession, influencing action and supporting change to accomplish long-term job growth and enhance the quality of life. REC of GFW is made up of more than 600 members from more than 250 different companies who touch all facets of commercial real estate development. Besides conducting events and programs benefiting our members, REC of GFW addresses policy issues that affect development. REC of GFW is focused on three main areas:

  • Expanding Relationships -- we provide forums and events where relationships are expanded and leaders are developed.

  • Addressing Development Challenges -- we acknowledge development challenges in Fort Worth, Arlington, and Tarrant County and formulate and execute solutions with other partners to solve these challenges.

  • Addressing Community Challenges -- we address and work to solve community challenges to promote long-term job growth and an enhanced quality of life in Fort Worth, Arlington, and Tarrant County.

​The Real Estate Council believes that strong economic development is at the heart of growing Fort Worth, Arlington, and Tarrant County. Members work closely with civic, business, and public service leaders to strengthen the promotion of Tarrant County to companies, organizations, and others whose presence increases the prosperity of our community.


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