About 40 people gathered in Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium on June 5, many of them opponents of the proposed Business Improvement District. The forum was organized by StopAVLBID, a group that describes itself as a coalition that “includes activists working within the Occupy movement, local cooperatives, community media, downtown employees, anti-poverty advocates, and the Asheville Homeless Network.”
The BID plan would create an independent service nonprofit funded by a special tax on downtown properties; most of its board members would be downtown property owners; and the organization would be independent of the city. It has become increasingly controversial in recent weeks, with an array of groups criticizing the tax burden, lack of input, gentrification and unaccountability they believe a BID will entail.
During the forum, many questions focused on the BID’s structure and uncertainty about the role of uniformed ambassadors who would help visitors and clean the streets but would also serve as “eyes and ears” in the words of one proponent, to report illegal behavior.
Martin Ramsey, a local waiter and activist, criticized the make-up of the BID’s board, specifically the proposal to assign seats based on property holdings. A block of seats on the proposed 13-member board, for example, would be reserved for those who own at least $3 million in downtown property. “There’s no other government agency that works this way, it’s undemocratic,” he said.
John Spitzberg, a retired social worker active with the Asheville Homeless Network, asserted that BIDs can represent “different paradigms” than the one proposed in Asheville and that in some cities, BIDs can actually serve to benefit marginalized communities if properly organized.
Debra Wells, owner of Instant Karma, said she’s concerned about how much of the property tax increase for the BID will get passed on to smaller business owners, and about the BID’s impact on the city’s artistic subcultures.
“I’m kind of intimidated, because I think the owner of my building is for it. I’m concerned about the repercussions,”
A number of BID proponents showed up as well. Former Asheville Downtown Association member Joe Minicozzi helped create the plan. He defended it as a way to take over clean-up and other needed services from volunteers (he brought a large bag of cigarette buts with him).
Rebecca Hecht, owner of Adorn Salon, said she’s “scared to death” of large corporations intruding into downtown, and BIDs are a way to prevent that by creating a common platform for advocacy. “There’s nothing to protect us from that right now,” she said. “There’s no organization to advocate against that, we’re just lucky it’s not been an issue.”
Franzi Charen, a member of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, agreed that a BID is a necessary way to stop corporate intrusion and coordinate community action.
A number of the attendees expressed sympathy for Charen’s goals, but replied that they don’t think the BID is the way to achieve them.
“I don’t want box stores downtown, but I don’t see why the Business Improvement District is a better vehicle for keeping them out than the one we already have, which is a great city council,” a man named Scott said. “The experience everyone has downtown is going to be affected by this. I do think you’ll find it will create more homogenization than diversity.”
He added that he didn’t see a difference between the ambassadors being “eyes and ears” and being a private security force. “I’d like to know what they’re looking for.”
Natalie Nicole asked the attendees to raise their hands if they didn’t directly own property downtown. Most raised their hands, and she told BID proponents, “These are all the people who will not have voices. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned [BID board members] might be. When you give them power over others and there’s not accountability, they’ll abuse it.”
Margaret Mary, who’s recently arrived in Asheville, warned that in Atlanta, Ga., ambassadors from that city’s BID started out simply giving directions to visitors, but have ended up harassing minorities and the homeless.
Some members of StopAVLbid are planning a “colorful, loud” protest outside the June 12 Asheville City Council meeting, and are encouraging others to speak at the meeting and urge Council members to vote against the BID.