Customer Service: Quality public works makes a difference

(from Maine Townsman, April 2005)
By Mike Laberge, Freelance Writer

Companies look at things like tax rates, labor costs and transportation links when deciding where to do business. But can the quality of a community’s public works services make a difference?

Many municipal leaders in Maine say ‘yes’. Having a public works department that can accommodate the needs of local businesses is one more factor that can make – or break – a deal.

“Communities that have a reputation for having good roads – not windy, broken, poorly maintained cow paths – are more likely to be able to attract businesses to town,” says Dana Lee, town manager of Mechanic Falls for 15 years.

For that reason, Lee and other municipal managers in Maine make public works services a year-round priority. In winter, plowing and sanding crews hit the roads soon after the snow flies to ensure that drivers can get to where they need to go. After a storm ends, they are busy clearing snow piles from the sides of streets so that patrons of local businesses can find parking.

When the spring thaw arrives, street sweepers remove trash and old sand from roads and sidewalks. Painting crews give fresh coats to crosswalks, parking spaces and center lines. Parks and recreation employees spread bark mulch, plant flowers and trim trees. Highway workers patch potholes and rebuild roads and sidewalks.

In a competitive world, municipal leaders know that a strong first impression can make a difference. A neat, clean and freshly painted community sends the right message.

“You don’t want to make an investment … in a community that looks dumpy,” Lee says. “Once you allow things to spiral downward, property owners will say, `Ah, what does it matter?’”

Rod McKay, Bangor’s longtime director of economic and community development, said businesses look for essential infrastructure such as reliable and well-maintained streets, water and sewer systems. But just as important is a community’s appearance. Often, companies considering a move to Bangor will request a tour of the city’s downtown.

“If things aren’t presentable, it presents a very bad image for the city, and a company is less likely to come here,” said McKay, who has worked 30 years for the city.

He and other city officials place a premium on customer service. During the winter, public works crews remove snow from municipal parking lots as soon after storms as possible. Sidewalks and the sides of streets also must be cleared, especially downtown. “Otherwise, the businesses can’t open and people can’t get to them,” McKay said.

During the summer, municipal foresters maintain trees along the public right of ways and oversee plantings. The city also works to make sure public parking areas and street lights are in good shape.

“I have a saying: Before you invite people over, clean your house,” McKay said. “You want to make yourself presentable.”

LANDING A MAJOR EVENT

That service-oriented attitude helped Bangor land the National Folk Festival, which drew more than 50,000 people to the city during each of the past three summers. Festival organizers had considered a variety of cities across the country. Bangor, with about 32,000 people, was by far the smallest.

Jim Ring, who oversees Bangor’s Public Services Department, said city officials ultimately convinced the National Council for the Traditional Arts that Bangor could handle the weekend-long event. The positive attitudes of city employees and their willingness to do whatever was needed to make things happen won over the festival committee.

“They were absolutely convinced, because of our can-do attitude, that we could pull this off,” Ring said.

Vital to that effort was the operations and maintenance division of the city’s public services department, which includes public works. The 72 employees bore the brunt of the workload to get the sites ready and keep them in shape.

Performers with electric instruments required power sources. Crews erected temporary transformers and ran leads to all of the main stages. “A festival of this magnitude needs a whole bunch of different types of power in a whole bunch of different locations,” Ring said.

Then there was the matter of topography. Stages needed flat foundations. In one location, the landscape didn’t accommodate a performance stage, so city crews improvised, laying filter fabric and stone to create a level surface. At another site, in Bass Park, the existing stage was too high. This time, workers dug a pit to lower the platform.

In 2002, the festival’s first year, organizers expected 25,000 people. The event drew more than double that number. On festival days, about 40 city employees handled a variety of tasks, from coordinating transportation links to cleaning up litter at night on ATVs. No detail was too small.

By the summer of 2004, the festival’s last year in Bangor, the event drew more than 100,000 people. The city had gained such a reputation for excellent service that it drew another major festival, the American Folk Festival.

“There were a lot of little things that made it work,” Ring said. “Bangor has become their model. There was a tremendous willingness to make it work at all levels.”

DOWNTOWN DIALOGUES

That same spirit of cooperation prevails in other communities. In Waterville, the annual Taste of Greater Waterville festival draws 15,000 people to the city’s downtown for one Wednesday evening in August. That is the equivalent of the Elm City’s population.

Kim Lindlof, president of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, said organizers could not run the event without Waterville’s public works department. The day of the event, workers begin before dawn and don’t end their work until well after dusk. They block off parking spaces between 4:30-5 a.m. to ensure that Main Street is clear for the event. During the day, they help set up, staff barricades and assist with traffic flow. At midnight, they pick up trash and ensure that the downtown is ready for business the next day.

A good public works department can enhance the business community, just as shoddy work can harm its image. Businesses want to know that a municipality is responsive. That means regularly emptying trash barrels, sweeping the streets and listening to concerns. “It presents to the public that Waterville is business friendly and a great place to live and work,” Lindlof said.

Jim Toner, who as Waterville’s community services director oversees 29 employees, tries to maintain a strong working relationship with the business community. His crews regularly hang banners over Main Street announcing large community events. They string Christmas lights during the holidays. Every Thursday night from spring to fall, they sweep the downtown of dirt and litter.

“It’s our job to provide an attractive, safe and livable community,” Toner said.

Jeff Kobrock, city manager of Gardiner, takes the same attitude. In recent years, the city has improved communication with the business community. Where once public works crews swept streets whenever they had down time, for example, they now keep a regular schedule. The same goes for removing snow piles from the parking spaces downtown.

Better coordination with the city’s downtown manager has been the key to a better relationship with merchants and property owners. “The level of pride rose very recognizably as the city positioned itself as a real partner in trying to make downtown as spiffy as we could make it,” Kobrock said.

Linda Matychowiak, director of the Gardiner Main Street program, said she began making lists of things that needed to be done when she started the job three years ago. She noted everything from lights that had burned out to snow piles left in place a bit too long. She followed up with calls and emails to city hall.

City officials have been responsive, she said. They understand the link between aesthetics and economic development. “In the summer time, if debris is blowing all over the place, it doesn’t look like anyone cares,” Matychowiak said. “We want the image to be clean and welcoming and safe.”

PAYING FOR SERVICES

In downtown Portland, property owners pay a special tax assessment that allows public works crews to give the district extra attention. The arrangement between the municipality and Portland’s Downtown District generates about $228,000 annually, which the city uses to cover the costs of providing a higher level of service downtown and in the Old Port district.

Under the contract, city public works crews haul away snow, clear and repair sidewalks, collect litter and empty trash cans. They also remove graffiti from glass surfaces.

Janis Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, said the special levy results in a more attractive downtown for Maine’s largest city. That, in turn, helps improve the business climate. “When you pick up the trash and clean up graffiti, it shows that someone is in charge and someone cares about the downtown,” Beitzer said.

The city and downtown district regularly discuss ways to improve the arrangement. This winter, the city began plowing snow into large piles in the center of Commercial Street, rather than onto the sides of the street. The practice opened parking spaces sooner than in the past. The practice showed that the city was serious about listening to the business community. “I hope we can continue this relationship into the foreseeable future,” Beitzer said.

Peter DeWitt, Portland’s communications director, said the city does its best to make its public works services business-friendly. “Every single thing a public works department does has a benefit to commerce – from clearing the streets, to picking up trash, to cleaning out the sewers to repairing traffic signals,” he said.

WORKING WITH DEVELOPERS

Still, there are times when Portland will go out of its way to meet the needs of the business community. The city, for example, regularly works with developers to coordinate utility and traffic-signal moves for new development. Such cooperation enables the developers to understand the city’s requirements, thereby building such costs into their projects and avoiding expensive surprises. In the past year, such coordination of public works issues worked well with the development of a new Hilton hotel and large office building in the Old Port district.

“They’re not always the most exciting things, but they’re absolutely essential if you’re going to have a new office building,” DeWitt said.

Such coordination also is the norm in Augusta, where key municipal department heads meet every two weeks with representatives from Central Maine Power Co., Adelphia and Verizon. The meetings serve to coordinate public works and utility-related projects that could affect development in the city.

“Everyone … who makes development possible needs to be on the same page – as much as you can do it,” said Mike Duguay, the city’s director of city services. “… It really keeps people engaged.”

As in Portland, the meetings in Augusta identify potential problems and challenges with proposed developments. That, in turn, gives developers a heads-up and often can save them money. The participation of the public works director is vital to the process.

Last year, for instance, the developer of a large mall known as the Marketplace at Augusta was planning an expansion that required an enlargement of the public right-of-way along Civic Center Drive, the project’s main entrance. Normally, the developer would have had to foot the costs of moving public infrastructure that included mast arms for the traffic signals. But after reviewing plans and visiting the site, the city’s engineer and public works director decided that there was room enough to enlarge the right-of-way – and leave the traffic signals undisturbed. That saved the developer tens of thousands of dollars.

“It’s still going to allow 12-foot travel lanes, and no one is worse off for it,” Duguay said.

The planning process, from Duguay’s viewpoint, worked. “My perspective is it’s a really good way of doing things,” he said. “Everyone’s interest gets to be served.”