Going Next Gen: Kangas leads Cape’s development services into a new era

Anna Kangas at her office in Cape Girardeau on Friday, April 2, 2021.
Sarah Yenesel ~ Southeast Missourian

If you talk to people who work directly with Anna Kangas, the City of Cape Girardeau’s newly named director of development services, they seem to run out of laudable adjectives to describe the licensed architect, a 2003 Jackson High School graduate.

“She has outstanding credentials coupled with the tenacity to get things done,” said deputy city manager Molly Mehner, to whom Kangas reports. “Anna has the perseverance and determination to make our development process more streamlined and customer friendly.”

Retiring city manager Scott Meyer, who will leave his role after 12 years in June, echoed the sentiment.

“Anna has a good mind and a strong work ethic and a real ability to analyze and find ways to make processes better and deliver the outcomes we need,” he said.

“Anna has stepped up and in combination with others on our staff is making our transformation in development services a reality,” Mayor Bob Fox opined.

Kangas, 36, is in her second tour of duty with Cape Girardeau city government, having previously worked from 2011 to 2019 as the municipality’s commercial plan reviewer and building and code enforcement manager.

She left Southeast Missouri for a 14-month stint in Colorado, returning to this area in March 2020, just as the pandemic hit.

“When I got back, I was in the office for a total of two days, then worked essentially from home for the next three months,” Kangas said.

Meyer said he never thought of Kangas’s relative youth in approving her elevation to department head.

“As an engineer, I’m pretty outcome-based,” said Meyer, adding Kangas “is open to different and new solutions and in a changing world, that’s needed (and) she has handled all these roles with professionalism.”

The director’s job had been vacant since Alex McElroy became executive director of Southeast Metropolitan Planning Organization (SEMPO).

Demanding duties

Kangas is a busy woman these days, leading a 26-person development services department with several vacancies to fill while continuing as the city’s project manager on the $12.5 million new city hall project, due for completion in October.

As an architect herself, she is well acquainted with the process of construction.

Kangas previously served as the city’s point person on the $11 million Cape Girardeau police headquarters at 2530 Maria Louise Lane near Arena Park and the $3.47 million Fire Station No. 4 on Lexington Avenue in the city’s northwest quadrant.

She also oversaw smaller renovations at Fire Station No. 1 on South Sprigg Street and Fire Station No. 2 on South Mount Auburn Road.

New challenge

Mehner did not minimize the job Kangas had ahead of her upon the latter’s return to the area just more than a year ago.

“When (Kangas) returned to the city, she took on the monumental task of transforming development services — specifically, the inspection division’s responsibilities and processes. Despite a cyberattack, a global pandemic and several retirements of key personnel, Anna made significant changes to streamline the permitting and development process. I am confident she will exceed all our expectations,” Mehner said.

Kangas oversees four divisions in department services: inspections, engineering, planning and geographic information systems (GIS).

Of the quartet, GIS deserves a more complete definition.

“(GIS) covers any kind of information you can imagine a city would have,” Kangas said, noting GIS, which is managed by Alliance Water Resources, provides “layers” of information: locations of water and sewer mains, also of detention basins, streetlights and fire hydrants.

“When the public works department releases its snow routes or leaf pickup, those maps are GIS-generated,” Kangas explained, adding parcel information, streets, addresses, aerial images and even a crime map can be found there.

Kangas also made note of the department’s engineering division.

“Engineering manages the design, construction and inspection of public infrastructure,” she said, noting one project going through the division is the Highlands of Hopper Crossing subdivision.

“The developer is putting in streets, sidewalks, water and sewer mains, so our people are out on the job making sure the infrastructure that is put into place meets city standards,” said Kangas, who noted the city is looking for a full-time, in-house city engineer to replace Kelly Green of KLG Engineering, who has been working under contract for the city but will soon be relocating.

The planning division works closely with the Historic Preservation Commission, the Board of Adjustment and the Planning and Zoning Commission.

City planner Ryan Shrimplin is responsible for administering many areas, including but not limited to, setbacks, variances, exceptions and moving lot lines.

Change agent

It is in the inspections division that some of the most noticeable alterations have been made in the way development services does business.

“All licensing is now through our inspection division, and this is part of the transformation we’re doing, so business licenses and liquor licenses are now handled by us, so that development services become a ‘one-stop shop,’ so to speak,” Kangas said.

“Folks can come in and when they’re applying for a business or liquor license, we can tell them immediately if there are any issues with zoning or if we’re aware of any building code violations on the property. We now have an opportunity for more collaboration with business owners at the beginning,” she added.

Streamlining permits

Kangas’ department has moved the permit process online, an innovation intended to be a time saver for those doing business with the municipality.

“In the past, contractors had come into city hall and we would process everything at the counter, which we still do because we have quite a few walk-ins, but now, they don’t have to come to the office at all,” said Kangas.

Chris Janet, director of sales for Dutch Enterprises in Jackson, a plumbing, heating and air conditioning contractor, is grateful for the change.

“So many things today are done online, and the ability for us to do it this way with the city has been a big advantage because it improves efficiencies,” said Janet, who has worked for the company for 18 years.

The way things used to be done when it came to the permit process, Janet will not miss.

“You had to drive to the city, you may have to wait your turn to apply, wait for their staff to do its work and that takes time, so being able to do it now entirely from our office has been a big improvement,” he said.

“We’ve taken away the waiting,” said Kangas, adding plans can be uploaded via cyberspace anytime of the day or night.

“No one has to wait for our office to be open, as was the case in the past, and that saves a lot of time,” she said.

Improved bidding process

Kangas said in the next couple of months, the city should be onboarding online e-procurement software.

“Up to now, the city would post its requests for proposals (RFPs) and our bid packages on our website and interested parties would have to come to city hall and purchase a copy of the package before bids could be submitted,” she said.

Just as is the case with permitting, the bid process will also shortly be entirely online.

“Not only will development services be able to advertise RFPs and the acceptance of bids online, but every other city department can have access to it as well,” said Kangas, adding the new software will have multiple applications.

“We’ll use it, for example, for on-call services for electricians, whenever something goes wrong and someone can be dispatched almost immediately,” she said, noting certain bulk purchases (e.g., janitorial supplies, large paper orders) can also be bought using the software.

Development projects

Kangas’ goal to simplify and streamline is seen in an important decision to contract out the review of bigger projects brought by developers.

“We now have a third-party plan review service that takes the larger ones, and we expect a response in 10 business days,” Kangas said.

In the past, she said, it would take 3-to-4 weeks to get the first review comments back.

The time savings is reflected in a vivid statistic.

“From the time we receive a developer’s plan to start a review, especially on commercial work, to the time we are ready to issue a permit has gone from an average of 68 days to 28 days,” said Kangas.

“That’s a huge change because time is money for a developer,” said Fox, who adds the effort is all part of making Cape Girardeau even more business friendly.

Some of the larger projects outsourced for review include the new McDonald’s restaurant at Kingshighway and Mount Auburn and a major renovation by Mid-America Hotels on Route K.

A smaller project was also sent out for review, a tunnel car wash planned for in front of Hobby Lobby.

“We sent out that last one not for its size but to make sure our third-party vendor is fully trained on the digital plan review software we built,” Kangas said.

The director takes pains to note only the building portion of a project is farmed out to the review vendor; the city still reviews site plans and stormwater needs in-house.

Kangas explained under the old protocol, big projects would get into the plan review queue and smaller ones would go on hold.

“It’s just a lot more efficient this way because before, we couldn’t keep up,” said Fox, who adds part of the difficulty has been a staff shortage.

“I think there are about 20 jobs open in the city in different departments and retirements and other turnover have had an impact,” he added.

Kangas is determined to see the bright side of the changes.

“We had an opportunity last fall when some folks retired to reorganize how we did plan review by rearranging which staff had responsibility for certain areas,” she said.


Mayor Fox is hopeful of getting back to a more regular schedule for the Developers’ Roundtable, a gathering that had become quarterly pre-COVID but whose meetings stalled due to the pandemic. Three developers came to a March meeting.

“These are valuable meetings because they’re a way for developers to speak freely,” Kangas said.

Code Enforcement Flexibility

“We want to be a code authority that listens to practicality and make exceptions when warranted, while holding in tension our responsibility for the safety of all of our citizens,” said Meyer.

“Part of our responsibility is not just to blindly follow a code and tell people this is always the case without exception,” he said, making special note of the 2015 International Building Code, which in Section 423, required all new public structures “with an aggregate occupant load of 50 or more” to build storm shelters to sustain extremely high winds.

In Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011, an EF5-tornado killed 158 people, injured 1,150, and caused an estimated $2.8 billion in damage, one of the most destructive twisters on record.

The superintendent of Cape Girardeau Public Schools, Neil Glass, reached out to the city about the 2015 code requiring a shelter, since the district is planning a $11.3 million civic center at Jefferson Elementary.

“When you talk about student safety, there is never a dollar figure attached,” said Glass, Cape’s superintendent since 2017, but said the cost of building a storm shelter would have financially crippled the district’s plans.

“It was going to be cost prohibitive to move ahead with any building project because of that stipulation,” he added.

“Emergency shelters are not cheap to build,” said Kangas, adding, “we recognize we need safe places for students, but we’re also aware of the budget issue.”

“After Joplin happened, there was a large sum of money out there available for tornado shelters,” said Glass, “but that’s kind of dried up now.”

“Usually, a school district funds these kinds of expenditures through Federal or State Emergency Management and usually those (funding) buckets are filled when there is a major catastrophe,” Glass continued. “When we were going through our design (for Jefferson), that bucket wasn’t filled because neither FEMA nor SEMA was taking any more applications. ... What we were looking for (from the city) was an exemption.”

“We delayed adoption of that section (of the 2015 Code) and later decided to delete it completely,” said Kangas,

“We’re thrilled the city went ahead and removed that section,” responded Glass, adding the Cape Schools now will not have to go back and seek an exemption every time the district plans a building project.

“But if there is money available, believe me, we’re going to be first in line (to build a shelter),” assured Glass.

Mayor Fox said the city should respond with flexibility, if it can, as some businesses, impacted by COVID-19, have altered the way they operate, perhaps permanently.

“A business may not need as many parking spaces as the code says it has to have because of its square footage,” he said.

“You’ve got so many restaurants doing more carry-out, more delivery, and some may not go back to indoor dining, (and) the city needs to be practical sometimes and be prepared to make changes to the code,” Fox added.

“We may need to do some research on this,” opined Kangas.

“I know there have been recent site plans we’ve reviewed in regard to the amount of parking spaces that just didn’t make sense for the kind of business it was,” she added.

Empowering staff

“We have to make staff more able to make simple decisions (because) there are so many little things people need that you’ve got to be reasonable. You want things to be simple and you want to be helpful. For example, an ordinance may stipulate you can’t have a fence higher than six feet. Let’s say the fence is in your backyard, there’s no one behind you, and you know deer can jump a six-foot fence, so you ask for permission to make it eight feet. That’s something staff should handle, you shouldn’t have to come to the Planning and Zoning Commission,” said Fox.

“I do remember a situation a few years ago where it made sense to allow a taller fence because of the contour of the land but we still had to list it as an exception and take it to P&Z for approval,” recalled Kangas.

“Perhaps we can get an ordinance changed, if council is amenable, to allow some decisions on a staff level,” she added, noting more than one person would make such a call at city hall.

“We have a development review group meeting weekly and every city department is present. We come together and talk about projects and issues; we invite developers, contractors and design professionals to attend,” Kangas said.

“Sometimes we’ll be told some sections of the code are really hard to meet and ask what might be done instead,” she added.

Cape Vision 2040

The economic prosperity chapter of the Cape Vision 2040 report, presented last September to city council, calls for the following: “Review city codes (and) the development services delivery system on an ongoing basis with the goal of achieving a world-class responsible team approach to development with a special focus on rehabilitation and/or reuse of existing building inventory.”

Kangas indicated caution, study and deliberation are important in decisionmaking.

“We recognize on redevelopment projects there are challenges when it comes to our code for developers but we’re seeking a balance between what they need and also meeting landscaping and stormwater detention requirements and so on,” she said. “There’s a push and pull between those two things. We don’t want to be the reason why development is held up in our community.”