Amid talk of higher taxes and better services, City Council may soon decide whether downtown Asheville gets a business improvement district.
Many city residents first encountered the term in 2009, when Boston-based consultants Goody Clancy recommended the idea in their draft of what became Asheville’s Downtown Master Plan. Council adopted the plan later that year, and a series of committees established by the Downtown Commission went to work on implementing it. One of them, the Downtown Management Subcommittee, was charged with crafting a specific proposal for the BID. Recently, the subcommittee has begun pitching its plan to Council, civic groups and the general public, in part through a series of public meetings.
BIDs provide specified services to a designated area. In Asheville's case, the proposal calls for City Council to levy a special tax on downtown property — 7 cents per $100 of property valuation — to help fund the BID.
“Basically it will add a layer of services above and beyond what the city provides,” says downtown resident Susan Griffin, who chairs the Downtown Management Subcommittee. “There's no one model for a BID: They're really based around local needs.”
With an estimated budget of $700,000 to $900,000 a year, the local BID would be aiming to keep downtown “clean, green and safe.” To accomplish this, the nonprofit would fund 10 to 12 distinctly uniformed “downtown ambassadors,” who would help keep the area clean, assist visitors and generally keep an eye on things. In various presentations, Griffin has said the ambassadors would try to deter "illegal or undesirable behavior" ranging from panhandling to people lingering on the sidewalk.
“They clean up, they check out if there are problem spots — if a sidewalk needs power-washing, for example,” Griffin explains. “They're trained specifically to deal with issues like panhandling; they have contact with the police. … The goal is to make this a more efficient downtown.” The ambassadors, she says, could also help with things like escorting employees who leave work late at night.
In addition to the tax assessment, the city and county are each being asked to directly contribute about $150,000 per year to the BID's budget. Griffin calls this an investment; an economic-impact study her subcommittee commissioned estimates that the BID could boost property-tax revenues in the district by about 2 percent a year, and sales-tax revenue by 5 percent. The proposal would also bind city government to maintain its current level of total spending on downtown.
If approved by Council in May, the BID would get an initial three-year term, after which the city could decide whether to renew. In the meantime, however, the nonprofit would be free to spend those tax dollars however it saw fit, as long as it provided the specified services.
Powers vary widely
BIDs are nothing new; there are more than 50 in North Carolina alone. But what powers they have — and who wields them — can vary widely. In the early 2000s, a BID in Seattle asserted the right to treat a 62-block area of the city as if it were private property, including deciding which street performers could play there. Some of them sued, and a judge later overturned the rules concerning buskers.
Asheville's Downtown Master Plan cites the example of a BID setting up security cameras and/or providing additional security patrols. Griffin says the BID would have more modest goals, though once approved and funded, the board could decide on a different approach.
“In addition to the 'clean, green, safe,' its main function is advocacy … for property owners downtown,” she reports. “Our interim board is really representative of a range of property owners” (see sidebar, “Making Their Bid”).
“Everyone is cognizant that Asheville has idiosyncracies,” notes Griffin, adding, “No one's saying, 'Wow, let's come in and be Charleston.’ We want to be Asheville. We don't want to change the vibe — we want to encourage it. This is not a governmental organization.”
Public sentiment unclear
Although the BID itself would be a nonprofit, it could hire a private company to manage the day-to-day services. “There are companies like Block by Block and SGI that do these clean-and-green programs,” she explains. “It would be local employees, but the nonprofit can sign contracts like that.” And on March 21, Griffin told a group of downtown residents and property owners that an interim board appointed by the subcommittee late last year wants SGI to run the BID.
On March 20, the interim board (see sidebar, “Making Their Bid”) settled on a governing structure for the BID: a 13-member board that would oversee SGI. A majority would be downtown property owners: three would be “major” (property worth more than $3 million); two would be “large” ($1.5 million to $3 million); and two would be “small” (less than $1.5 million). There would also be two downtown residents, two owners of retail businesses or restaurants, one office owner and an at-large member. Representatives of organizations involved in downtown would have nonvoting seats on the board.
At the March 20 meeting of City Council's Finance Committee, Griffin was asked how much support the proposal has attracted from downtown property owners.
“We haven't hit on a way that gets to public opinion about this,” she said. “You know you'll get the 10 percent that are completely opposed, the 10 percent that are completely for it, and it's hard to tell where the other 80 percent are.” Efforts are under way, added Griffin, to get “the largest property owners on board.”
A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for the May 22 City Council meeting, followed by a Council vote on whether to approve the BID and its initial slate of board members. Council members would have to approve both the new tax and the BID's overall budget, but after that they’d have no further say in how the organization was run. Council could also choose to approve the proposal with modifications or send it back to the subcommittee for retooling.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.