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Tuesday, July 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On Seattle task force's 'to do' list: speeding up business permits

Seattle Times staff reporter

Mayor Greg Nickels today will announce plans to cut wait times on city permits and simplify the city's 1,500-page land-use code as he accepts the recommendations of a task force charged with ways to improve Seattle's business climate.

In March, Nickels appointed a 38-member Economic Opportunity Task Force of business, union and other civic leaders to come up with a "to do" list for the city. Today, in a news conference at a Fremont biotechnology firm, the mayor will announce the group's findings and say what he plans to do with them.

The group made recommendations in a dozen categories, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Seattle Times.

Fixing the region's transportation problems tops the list, but the task force also suggested revisions to the way city government interacts with business, from changing taxes that discourage innovation to lifting restrictions that make it hard for the city's largest employer — the University of Washington — to grow.

"The mayor feels this is a great action agenda and wants to get to work on it right away," said Nickels spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel.

To that end, Nickels will announce some immediate actions today. That includes cutting the wait time on business permits to 10 days. It can take as long as four weeks now, Bichsel said.

Nickels will also ask the City Council to cut the time it takes the city to review a building-permit application to 120 days from the current 180 days. And the mayor will propose hiring an "ombudsperson" who would help business owners and troubleshoot problems.

Many of the group's recommendations call for further planning, and Bichsel said the city's Office of Economic Development would work on those longer-range plans, which include:

Improve transportation. The group asks Nickels to publicly support Referendum 51, the statewide roads package headed for the November ballot. So far, Nickels has declined to support the measure without assurances from Gov. Gary Locke that the city would get additional money for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which was damaged in last year's earthquake.

Support higher education, especially the UW. The group suggests Nickels and the City Council lift growth restrictions on the university and support creation of a UW "research park" in the city.

Simplify land-use and zoning codes. The group suggests a series of reforms to make the city's rules less cumbersome and encourage building in the city.

Develop and implement a common vision for the Seattle waterfront. With the potential replacement of the viaduct, the report suggests the city work with the Port of Seattle, business and labor to support more maritime industry and tourism uses for the waterfront.

Change the way the city taxes technology business. The city's recent decision to tax research and development discourages business growth, the group contends.

Work to keep utility rates affordable, especially to industrial customers.

Target distressed business districts with economic development programs that focus on small businesses, especially those owned by women and minorities.

Improve the city's customer service. The group suggested an internal city campaign that encourages workers to be "user friendly."

Advocate for more work-force training and apprenticeship programs.

• Reduce obstacles to employment for low-wage, disabled and underemployed populations. That includes encouraging "utilization agreements," which tie public contracts to programs that allow apprentices to work on them.

Market Seattle as a place that helps businesses succeed. The task force suggests a marketing program and says the city should promote local music like it does movies.

Come up with a citywide economic revitalization strategy that targets key business sectors with the greatest growth potential.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

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