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Policy changes fuel Republic real estate growth, officials say

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Some large real estate wins have been piling up in Republic over the past year-plus.

E-commerce retailer Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), nonprofit Convoy of Hope and retail chain Andy’s Frozen Custard Inc. all made their Republic debut last month after completing construction projects. Those were preceded by Ozarks Technical Community College Republic Center, which opened its campus in July 2020.

Republic City Administrator David Cameron said the projects all came about from available land and the willingness for city staff to act quickly with the developers when the opportunities arose.

“In both (the Amazon and Convoy of Hope) projects, just to put into perspective, we didn’t have to go to a public vote to rezone or classify the property to get it done,” he said. “Land was available, and we did a lot of the work on the infrastructure and also the discussions on the front end.”

Amazon operates in a 1.3 million-square-foot distribution and fulfillment center at 3200 E. Sawyer Road in Garton Business Park, just south of James River Freeway. Convoy of Hope’s new 230,000-square-foot distribution center is also near the freeway at 7200 W. Carnahan St.

The growth is hardly contained to commercial real estate, as the residential market is blazing hot. Cameron said the city of 18,500 residents has 2,000 units in some level of development. City officials monitor single-family and multifamily residential project phases, including application, construction and final plat, he said, noting that’s up from around 60-80 houses in some phase of that process just five years ago.

Additionally, Republic School District officials project another 500 students in the next two to four years to bolster its roughly 5,000-student enrollment.

It’s all contributed to the small town of Republic being not so small anymore. The U.S. Census Bureau noted Republic grew over 25% between 2010 and 2020.

“We’re projecting 12.5% per year growth over the next five years,” Cameron said, estimating that could bring the population close to 30,000.

Addressing issues
While Cameron defers credit to city staff, changes in the process of development negotiations coincided with his 2016 arrival in Republic. He had worked the previous 16 years for the city of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and witnessed economic and population growth during his time in the northwest part of the state.

“The city itself was probably the biggest challenge, even just the way staff evaluated and reviewed those things,” he said of Republic’s past development struggles. “We had to change our processes. People were frustrated about developing in Republic. We had to address what those issues were from a process perspective, approval perspective, the timeline it was taking for the city to review and even the inconsistencies in the city’s review.”

A city staff policy shift included revising codes in 2017, Cameron said. That process involved gathering feedback from the development community.

“I was new, and I wanted to hear what the frustration level was. I heard plenty of it and we made note of it,” he said. “We looked at what couldn’t be changed and what was reasonable. Some of it, quite frankly, was a mindset in the city that made it just difficult.”

Sean Thouvenot, vice president of commercial contractor Branco Enterprises Inc., agrees.

“It used to be that years ago, before they got their new city leadership, it was extremely tough to do anything in Republic,” he said. “But the new administration is definitely open for business.”

In recent years, Branco has worked on several projects in Republic, including clinics for Jordan Valley Community Health Center and Visionhealth Eye Center. Thouvenot said Branco has other Republic projects in development, including a Culver’s restaurant and a storage facility for RVs and boats.

He said the available property and willingness of city staff to work through issues with the developer are attractions to do business with Republic.

“If something works on one property and not on the other, they’re open to those ideas – as long as it meets code, of course,” he said. “They’re very accommodating.”

Process improvement
Cameron said his time in Arkansas taught him government needs to operate like a business and move at a similar speed. In Republic, he took over economic development for the city, and the Builds Department was created. Andrew Nelson is administrator of Builds, which consolidated the staff of Public Works and the Community Development Department.

At the beginning of every project, city staff holds a meeting with the developer to learn their intention for the site. From there, staff evaluates potential barriers from the developer’s perspective and addresses them.

“A lot of times, we believe it’s our ability to say, ‘Let us help you achieve what you’re wanting to do.’ So, when their submittal comes in, there’s not a lot of red flags for us,” Cameron said. “Everything we’ve discussed previously has already been addressed.”

The city used to take 45-60 days to review new development plans. The approval process now is about 13 days, he said, noting the Amazon project was approved in six days. A housing permit previously took 12 days to turn around. Now, it’s two to three days, he said.

“It’s a whole lot more streamlined there than trying to get something through Springfield,” Thouvenot said.

Springfield City Council member Richard Ollis acknowledges Republic’s quick project approval process, paired with the large amount of land available to developers, has paid dividends for the city. He said high-profile projects like Amazon and Convoy of Hope weren’t realistic for Springfield.

“We just didn’t have the available and developable land that they could very quickly and expediently develop like they wanted to,” he said. “There has been some frustration in the business community about how difficult sometimes it is to develop and just get answers and movement through the process.”

However, Ollis said Springfield is making strides to address concerns.

“We are recalibrating our staff as well as looking at our processes to streamline our approach to both develop and attract businesses and development to our region,” he said. “We’re going to be posting a new director of economic vitality job soon.”

In June, City Council approved the creation of the Department of Economic Vitality, which formally separates the current economic development function from the Planning and Development Department. Its primary objectives include encouraging reinvestment and quality economic growth, retaining and facilitating expansion of existing businesses, and attracting new ones, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

Thouvenot also pointed to Springfield hiring Dwayne Shmel in January as its new director of Building Development Services as a positive step.

“Springfield is really doing what they can to try to improve the process,” Thouvenot said.

As Republic’s growth continues, Cameron said much of its future development is going to be in the areas around James River and highways MM and N. That includes a 100,000-square-foot warehouse now under construction in Garton Business Park for grocer and food services supplier McLane Co. Inc.

“We’re looking at where it needs to go next,” he said. “There’s plenty of flat land that we can serve with water, sewer and street.”

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