When Bartley Payne decided to open Bogey’s Grille, a neighborhood restaurant on Evans To Locks Road in Martinez, he knew many Columbia County residents wanted more local dining options other than just the chain restaurants.
“Columbia County is absolutely where we wanted to be,” Payne said, adding that Bogey’s Grille opened at the end of May in the Village at Furys Ferry. “We looked at several places in Columbia County, but at this location, we are the last commercial outpost before you get to all the bedroom communities. So we are very close to neighborhoods like Jones Creek and West Lake.”
After looking at the tremendous population growth in Columbia County over the past few years, as well as the traffic flow and the disposable income of the nearby residents, Payne said he had no doubt that the Village at Furys Ferry was the perfect location.
“The restaurant is extremely accessible to traffic,” Payne said. “And even though we looked at a couple of places on Washington Road that were also possibilities, we just went with our current location because there is a big difference between a lunch crowd and a dinner crowd, and we were shooting more for the dinner crowd. So that’s why we chose this location.”
In order to get the restaurant ready for business, Payne said he hired Carter Cleveland, president of JH Cleveland Construction, to handle the job.
“We actually had to deconstruct as well as reconstruct,” Payne said, adding that Bogey’s Grille is in the former location of BirdDog Grille. “We started construction right after the Super Bowl this year, so it was the latter part of February or the first part of March. And it took a little while simply because the scope of the work and, you know, Columbia County is exacting. They do require everything to be in order. But we opened on May 28.”
Working with Columbia County’s Licensing and Permits Department was extremely different from his experience years ago when he opened a restaurant in Augusta, Payne said.
“It’s not like it used to be,” Payne said, chuckling. “I opened a restaurant in Richmond County in the 1980s, and it was pretty easy. But Columbia County is very exacting about how they want to do things. They want things to be right, but they will help you get things right.”
Erin Hall, the Licensing and Permits Manager for Columbia County, said her department has seen a steady increase of new restaurants moving into the county.
“Right now, we have a lot of franchise restaurants that are locally owned,” she said. “In recent years, I can’t think of a chain restaurant, off the top of my head, that wasn’t locally owned. They have all been opened by people who are here in our community.”
Just this year, Hall said a total of 11 new, full-service restaurants have opened in Columbia County and 13 limited-service restaurants have also opened their doors. That’s a total of 24 new restaurants so far in 2018. In comparison, a total of 12 new restaurants opened in Columbia County in 2015.
“The Gateway area is just booming right now,” Hall said, adding that her department works closely with each applicant to thoroughly review their plans in a timely manner. “With our plan review process, we try to turn all the plans back out for comments within 10 working days, so basically two weeks. We try to get them back out pretty quickly.”
CRITICS OF COLUMBIA COUNTY
However, the Metro Spirit spoke with several local contractors who tell a different story about the review process in Columbia County.
Some are complaining that there’s too much red tape and very little customer service offered in Columbia County.
The contractors requested to remain anonymous in this story to avoid any possible backlash from county officials.
“We work in a lot of different counties and different states, but I’ll be honest with you, I hate doing work in Columbia County,” one local contractor said. “If I use Richmond County as a comparison, in Richmond County, when you walk in their offices, it’s a very welcoming environment. It is a very helpful environment.”
“When I walk into Columbia County, it’s almost as if you’re an intruder,” he added. “And they are behind locked doors. They are back there behind a vault. That’s what I call it. They aren’t talking to anybody.”
It’s almost as if the staff there doesn’t know the meaning of the word “public servant,” he said.
“I don’t expect somebody to roll out the red carpet for me, but I certainly don’t expect a stiff-arm, either,” he said. “I think there is a disconnect between that office out there and the contractors that keep them employed. There is an arrogance that basically, you’re nothing and you should kiss their backsides when they show up. And it’s almost like they are doing you a favor to even talk to you. That’s the one that really smokes me.”
Another contractor agreed, saying that Augusta-Richmond County, Aiken County and North Augusta bend over backwards to help contractors, while many of the employees in Columbia County are impossible to reach.
“In North Augusta or Richmond County, the people over there could not be more helpful or friendly,” he said. “If I need to talk to the head guy, I can ask, ‘Can I talk to him?’ And the nice lady up front will say, ‘Sure. He’s here. Let me go back and get him.’ And I’ll be speaking directly to him within minutes. That doesn’t happen in Columbia County.”
Another contractor said he finds that Columbia County often drags its feet during the plan review process.
“What seems to take Augusta, North Augusta or Aiken County a week or two to get your permits and plan review done, it seems like Columbia County can quadruple that because of nonsense,” he said. “And what I mean by nonsense is they will take a perfectly good set of drawings that you’ve spent thousands of dollars having prepared and they will nitpick pieces and wording. It’s an obstructionist attitude.”
And this isn’t a case where the contractor is trying to cut corners or anything like that, he said.
“Now, I get it. It has to be to code. It has to be correct,” he said. “But when you start picking verbiage, that is just worded wrong out of a set of plans and that delays you another week, that’s ridiculous. And it happens every time I submit plans.”
He also said that Columbia County isn’t forthcoming to business owners about a true timeline to get their permits or plans reviewed.
“My customer will call up there, pre-construction, and they will say, ‘Hey, I’m getting ready to do this project. When I submit my plans, how long from there should I expect my contractor to get a permit?’” he said. “You know what they are going to tell them? ‘Seven days.’ So, when it turns out to be a month, guess who has egg on their face? Me.”
This contractor said he has never received a permit within seven days from Columbia County.
“They are not truthful with owners. They will tell them seven days because that covers them,” he said. “But the truth is, it’s three or four weeks by the time it goes through the quagmire up there to get your permit.”
He also said there is a common phrase that he’s frequently been told when there’s a mistake made in Columbia County, but the staff doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.
“Their favorite phrase is, ‘You should have known,’” the contractor said, laughing. “I am about to paint that on my truck. I mean, there is just a horrible disconnect out there between personal service to the contractor and their arrogant attitudes. I’m treated poorly for no reason.”
The cost of permits and inspections in Columbia County are astronomically higher than Richmond County, another contractor pointed out.
“Here is their other trick for making money,” he said. “I don’t care who you are or how good of a job you think you’ve done, you are going to fail final inspection a minimum of two times. Because every time you do it, there will be more inspection fee money. They are going to find the absolute dumbest, idiotic things to fail and fail again, to get that inspection money.”
The entire process in Columbia County is completely ridiculous, he said.
“I think what all of them in their fantasy world up there have forgotten is that the general contractors and contractors as a whole are why they have jobs,” he said. “We are out here in the real world where hard money is made. Time is money, and they are up there with nice paychecks and nice benefit packages, and we are the ones creating that because without us, they are unemployed.”
COLUMBIA COUNTY IS ‘HERE TO HELP’
When Hall was told that the Metro Spirit had received some complaints about the department, she insisted that Columbia County works extremely hard to serve everyone in the public and does everything possible to assist those seeking permits and wishing to open a new business.
“We are here to help,” Hall said. “And, of course, some people are going to say that it takes longer than they want because they want to walk in the door and walk right out with an approval. But what some people don’t realize, this is a review process.”
It’s their job to make sure that a new business or new construction meet all of the county codes to ensure the public’s safety, she said.
“We are making sure that everything is in compliance with local codes for the restaurant itself, and if it’s being constructed, to make sure they are meeting all the building codes,” she said. “That’s our job.”
In fact, Hall said as soon as someone comes to the department seeking information about a new business license, she will walk them through the process.
“The first thing I tell them to do is certainly check with our health department to find out the food service regulations because the food service permit from the health department is the number one priority,” she said. “I also tell people, talk to the health department and environmental compliance first. Even if they are not ready to fill out paperwork with me yet. I tell them to contact these two folks, because they will be your biggest asset.”
There is a team in place to help business owners every step of the way, she said.
“We have the environmental compliance team for water utility. They go through your fat oil and grease separators, making sure that all of that is taken care of properly,” she said. “And then the fire marshal comes out, as he would in any business, to make sure the hood suppression system is in place for kitchen fires and things like that. They also make sure there is proper ventilation. All four of those departments are reviewers on that occupational tax, or business license, before it is issued.”
Scott Daniel, Columbia County’s Environmental Compliance Supervisor, said the county staff also encourages people to have a predevelopment meeting before beginning the application process.
“When someone comes to Columbia County and they want to open up a restaurant, I always highly recommend that they do a predevelopment meeting,” Daniel said. “Because that’s where everyone who is going to review those plans — including the health department, the fire marshal, planning and zoning, environmental compliance and building standards — they are all going to be in that room and answer any questions that they have and advise them on what they may need and what fees are also involved.”
Daniel said a member of each of the departments is more than happy to discuss a project.
“And the county doesn’t charge for that,” he said. “That’s free of charge.”
From the pre-development meeting to the plan review, Daniel insists the average turnaround is between seven to 14 days.
“And we are going to be with that restaurant, through the life of the restaurant with any kind of guidance or assistance that they need,” he said.
The goal of Columbia County’s staff is to help the business owner, as well as to ensure the safety of the public, Hall said.
“There are six of us in the licensing and permit department,” she said. “We do occupational tax — which everyone refers to as a business license — alcohol licensing, massage operator licenses, all building permits, certificates of occupancy and inspection scheduling. We run the gamut.”
Back when he was working to open Bogey’s Grille last spring, Payne said he did not experience any problems or friction with Columbia County.
“I’ve gone to Erin Hall several times, and she’s always been very helpful,” Payne said. “And the person who built the restaurant for us, Carter Cleveland, he lives in Columbia County and he knows what is going on out there. He has a great relationship with them. But the thing is, he is knowledgeable.”
Payne didn’t want to criticize any of the other local contractors, but he insisted that they must follow the county’s codes and guidelines.
“A lot of people who do this ‘do-it-yourself’ stuff, they are going to become frustrated with the county because they probably don’t understand the reason for a code or a specific requirement for a permit,” Payne said. “I only chalk that up to their lack of knowledge, not the county’s. The county has been very good to us.”
And while some of the permits and fees might be a little more expensive than other local jurisdictions, Payne said he doesn’t have a problem with what he was charged to open the restaurant.
“If you relate cost to services, Columbia County does a really good job in staying very close to you when you’re building,” Payne said. “It may cost a little more, but you get what you pay for.”
RICHMOND COUNTY WORKS TO PROMOTE GROWTH
Over in Richmond County, Building Official Marshall Masters said Augusta always views new business owners as their customers.
“We want to promote businesses coming to the city, so we do timely reviews and we treat them like customers,” Masters said. “That’s what other inspection departments miss. Other inspection departments — and I’ve dealt with a lot of them — they treat it like a monopoly. They know it, and they act accordingly. We don’t do that on the third floor of the Augusta Municipal Building. We treat them as a customer, and we treat them the best that we can.”
Masters said Augusta-Richmond County has made it a point to try to create an easy, straightforward process for potential business owners.
“Let’s say, you’re interested in opening up a restaurant in the city of Augusta. What typically happens is, we check the zoning and make sure the zoning is correct for the type of business or type of restaurant that is going to go there,” he said. “The second thing that we are requesting is three sets of drawings. What we do with the three sets of drawings is, we send one to the fire marshal on their behalf, we keep a set and then the contractor gets a set at the time of permit.”
The building officials work closely with the fire department to get the plans reviewed, he said.
“The plan review here is about two weeks, right now,” he said. “In fact, I have a set of drawings in here on my desk that I’m looking at. What will happen is, we’ll coordinate with the fire department and we will work these plans back and forth.”
While the Richmond County Health Department plays a vital role in the process, Augusta handles that side of the review process differently from Columbia County, he said.
“The local health department, years ago, said they wanted to be part of the process, but we were worried about streamlining,” Masters said. “The question was: do we need another person to actually sign off on the plans before I can release the permit? We didn’t feel at that time that we did.”
So, Augusta’s planning and development department took a different approach, he said.
“What we did was, we sat down with the health department and went over some of their requirements and their needs,” Masters said. “Now what happens is, we email the health department a form that we fill out and complete that gets all the information of the plan and the contact information to them. And that’s their notice that we have this drawing and we are working it.”
That way, the health department can work directly with the business owner to make sure the new establishment meets all the required health codes.
“The reason we do that is, a lot of counties will hold up the permit based on health comments,” Masters said. “And we think the health comments are very important for the safety of the patron and the customers, but you can be working a lot of the issues out with the health department while you’re building the space. So that’s something that we concentrate on. We get these folks working, get the restaurant being built and still work through the outlying issues with the health department. It’s all about progress and trying to move forward.”
Richmond County is also happy to offer courtesy inspections for new business owners and contractors, he said.
“A lot of times, a contractor may have an issue in the field and he wants one of our inspectors to ride by and give him some guidance,” Masters said. “And, of course, we are happy to do that because we don’t want you to get to a certain point and then we turn it down and then, you are doing a lot of tear out. We don’t want unnecessary tear out and delays for the business owner.”
Masters also said Augusta’s fees are much lower than most jurisdictions, including Columbia County.
“Not too long ago, we did a comparison with our fees in relation to Columbia County’s fees,” Masters said. “And it wasn’t just to see what Columbia County was charging. We knew they were using the International Code Council, or ICC, fee schedule. If you do that, your fees are very high, so we don’t use that. But when we did the comparison, the differences in the fees were shocking.”
According to the Augusta-Richmond County Planning and Development Department’s data, the total fees collected for a newly construction, 9,000 square-foot Family Dollar in Augusta would be $2,306.
A similar Family Dollar in Columbia County would have fees totally $6,378.
That is a 176.5 percent difference.
In the case of a newly constructed 78,770-square-foot Hampton Inn in Augusta, the total fees charged would be $38,902. In Columbia County, the same hotel would be charged $67,718. In that case, it is a 74 percent difference between the two counties.
Finally, a newly constructed, 41,920-square-foot Walmart and fuel center in Augusta would be charged a total of $9,077 in fees, while that same Walmart would have fees totaling $26,581 in Columbia County.
That’s a whopping 192.8 percent deference, according to Augusta’s planning department.
“Our fees are much lower than Columbia County, and they are intentionally lower to promote building,” Masters said. “I think that’s part of why the city is thriving right now. It is very good for the city.”
Masters also said he wants to process plans as quickly as possible, but to always make sure the plans are correct.
“We want to help those folks realize their timelines, because what a lot of people miss is, time is money. And people have expectations,” Masters said. “Contractors are under timelines. They are under penalties sometimes. And only until you have been on the other side of the desk and you’ve been the one trying to get a permit, can you realize how important time is to other people. All of our inspectors that we hire, they’ve been on the other side and they understand.”
Christopher Booker, an Augusta architect, said he has an extremely good working relationship with both counties and, specifically, he does appreciate the customer service offered by Richmond County’s building officials.
“One thing I really do like about Richmond County’s building department is they are very accessible,” Booker said. “If you call, they return your calls and they are very helpful. So, we have a really good relationship with them, and Marshall Masters does a very good job.”
Back over in Columbia County, Payne from Bogey’s Grille is also extremely happy to sing the praises of Columbia County officials.
In fact, Payne said the county staff continues to support his restaurant by dropping by for lunch or dinner.
“The county was very helpful, and they still come in and eat, so they patronage us as well,” he said. “I appreciate that, because it’s a symbiotic relationship. They want us to succeed. And I’ll tell you this, Commissioner Doug Duncan has always been supportive and helpful to us. While we were in construction, he came by on a regular basis and has come to eat many times since we opened.”
Such support means a great deal to a locally owned business, Payne said.
“So it is a neighborhood restaurant that is supported by the county and the people who are in it,” Payne said. “That’s exactly what I wanted when I came out here.”