City within a city: Council approves downtown BID

Waiting for a sign: Downtown Association board President Adrian Vassallo and Asheville Grown Business Alliance Director Franzi Charen watch debate over the proposed downtown business improvement district. Photo by Max Cooper.

After months of heated public debate, Asheville City Council approved a controversial downtown business improvement district on Oct. 9.

The Downtown Master Plan that Council adopted in 2009 recommended establishing the BID (a nonprofit funded by a special tax district). One of the subcommittees formed to help implement the plan crafted a proposal and eventually established an interim BID board with some of the same members.

But as the proposal began taking shape earlier this year, it sparked a contentious public debate. Proponents, many of them downtown power brokers, called the BID the key to addressing what they consider inadequate city services and keeping the area “clean, green and safe,” according to the BID plan.

Opponents, however, said the BID would impose an unnecessary tax, funnel the funds to an undemocratic board and stifle downtown’s creative spirit.

After a lengthy public hearing in June, Council sent the proposal back for retooling, citing concerns about the board’s proposed makeup, the uniformed “ambassadors” who would assist visitors and deter “undesirable” behavior and transparency issues.

On Oct. 3, the interim BID board released a revised plan that postpones the ambassador service for at least a year, reduces the district’s size, and changes the board’s makeup (including adding four seats appointed by outside agencies). The new version also proposed various potential tax rates for the district, depending on which services Council eventually approves, what subcontractor the BID board selects and what other funding the district receives.

Opponents, however, said there wasn’t sufficient time to review the new proposal, which they said retains many of the features they object to.

Public comment at the meeting seemed pretty evenly divided, with downtown residents and business owners alike arguing both for and against the proposal.

“I do believe we have compromised and come up with some really good ideas,” noted interim board member Franzi Charen, director of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance. “We have people in this town that can lead this board and create some really amazing changes.”

But Weinhaus owner and downtown resident Hunt Mallett countered, “Nowhere have I seen an unbiased survey that's asked us if we really want it. … We have a beautiful city; we don't have the level of crime and filth most of these BID proponents would have us believe.”

Council divided

Council discussion began with an impassioned denunciation by Council member Cecil Bothwell. The BID, he asserted, represents an abdication of the city's authority and accountability, and it hasn’t gained the widespread support its architects promised. “We're elected to make the hard decisions,” Bothwell declared. “If you don't like it, you can throw us out.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy agreed, saying Council should make improving downtown services a budget priority. The BID, she concluded, is not a good fit for the area.

However, Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer called the BID a “grass-roots effort,” likening it to a homeowners’ or condo owners’ association. “What's being asked of us tonight is to implement the structure, the shell,” she observed.

Council member Gordon Smith said the BID offers a way to improve services without further straining the city’s stretched budget. But he also expressed doubts about the ambassador program, wanted more specifics before approving the BID's tax rate, and urged the board to welcome opponents into the district's decision-making process.

Now what?

Despite approving the proposal 5-2, with only Bothwell and Bellamy opposed, Council did significantly modify it. At Council member Marc Hunt's behest, City Council will appoint one-third of the BID board. In June, Hunt had argued that the city should appoint the entire board, but the interim board countered that in most cities, BID board members appoint their own successors.

Still, the district won't begin operations until July 1, 2013 (the beginning of the next fiscal year) at the earliest; the city must first approve a budget and a tax rate for it. Amendments to the BID's contract with the city to provide specific services would also require Council approval.

Council is set to approve the BID's permanent board by Dec. 15; a nominating committee consisting of two Council members and three interim BID board members will vet potential candidates.

But if the BID remains as controversial as it has been, it could become an issue in next year's City Council and mayoral races.

David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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