Tomorrow night, Oct. 9, Asheville City Council will vote on the controversial proposal for a Business Improvement District in downtown Asheville. Last week, the interim BID board released its revised proposal.
Earlier this year, plans presented for a Business Improvement District — an independent agency funded by a special property tax — drew mixed responses from the public, including concerns about transparency, finances, and who sits on its governing board.
Initially approved by Council in 2009 as part of the city’s Downtown Master Plan, Council has delayed action on this component. Since a July forum on the issue, the Interim BID board has taken Council’s input, as well as that from a the forum and its own inquiries, and changed some parts of the proposal in an attempt to address those concerns.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s superior,” interim board member Kim MacQueen tells Xpress. “We revisited boundaries, bylaws, board makeup and services. We spent the entire summer looking at those and met at least weekly.”
The boundaries now exclude the largely residential area east of Charlotte Street.
The make-up of the board, called undemocratic by some BID opponents, has also changed. Asheville City Council, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the Downtown Commission, and the Asheville Downtown Association will all appoint voting members. Three owners of small-to-medium downtown property (less than $3 million), two residents, two office tenants, two business owners and two at-large members will round out the board’s membership.
“We just looked at the other models that are out there, and there’s no model for [electing a board]. We couldn’t figure out how you’d have an election,” MacQueen says.
“The beauty of a BID is that it’s completely reflective of the neighborhood that it’s improving,” she adds. “If you pay into it, you get a voice in what it does.”
However, after initial appointment by the city, board members will still elect their own successors, as proposed earlier this year, and the same number of seats (three) are reserved for those who own downtown property valued at more than $3 million.
Some on Council, including BID supporter Marc Hunt, asked that the board to be publicly appointed, while some critics felt the board should be elected.
Asked why the interim board had allocated seats based on property ownership, MacQueen responded, “We heard over and over again from large property owners that ‘if we pay the most, we want the most seats.’ We were trying to get away from that, because we have so many small, independent businesses we wanted [to be] represented as well. We really researched what other boards were doing and looked at how to make this as democratic and representative as possible.”
MacQueen says, “The interim BID wasn’t interested in [the BID’s board] being appointed by City Council. The few Council-appointed Business Improvement Districts we found were just about fully supported financially by the city.”
A major fear of BID opponents is that, to pay for the additional tax, wealthy landowners will simply raise rents on their residential and business tenants — groups that have less representation on the board.
Noting “some representation for retail and business owners,” MacQueen says, “My response to that is what we’re trying to do is create a cleaner, safer downtown. On our interim board we have this whole range of property owners.”
The new plans also postpone implementing the BID’s safety program for one year. The original proposal involved providing uniformed ambassadors who would help visitors and act to deter “undesirable” behavior like loitering and graffiti. This plan had attracted particularly sharp criticism from people worried it would negatively affect the poor and homeless.
“There was so much pushback from the community,” MacQueen says. “We know from our visits to other communities that ambassador programs work, but we did not feel the community understood how they worked.”
Instead, the BID will initially focus on street cleaning, snow removal, landscaping, graffiti removal and other clean-up services. The approval of an ambassador program, and what that program would do, will be decided by an advisory committee, if Council approves the current proposal.
Asked how that committee will be appointed, MacQueen answers, “We’re in a rock and a hard place as an interim board, because there’s decisions we can’t make. Typically the board wants to be advised by people who are stakeholders and have an interest. I certainly think we’d welcome all comers.”
The new proposal contains a variety of budget figures, due to differing estimates from a number of companies. The proposed budget allows for the potentially lower rate (5 cents per $100 instead of 7, as initially proposed), but that depends on receiving direct contributions from local government.
“The city council would help determine that rate, depending on how they participate in that district,” MacQueen explains, adding that hard figures are difficult to come by at this point in the process.Since the interim board can’t put out official requests for proposals, the budget numbers are estimates.
MacQueen emphasizes that Council approved the BID when it signed off on the Downtown Master Plan in 2009 and that its development has been an open and public process.
“We’ve taken seriously every concern and question we’ve heard,” she says. “It’s just that we’ve done a lot of research on our own.”
Council approved the master plan in concept, and has in the years since voted separately on pieces of it (such as new development guidelines) that have come forward in finalized form. Some of the specifics of those proposals have proved controversial in other areas as well, such as transferring final approval of many downtown projects from Council to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
City Council will vote on the BID proposal tomorrow night, Oct. 9. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in Council’s chambers on the second floor of City Hall.