Downtown mulls 2024 business improvement district proposal

MAPPED OUT: Daniel Mekela, senior vice president of Progressive Urban Management Associates, highlights the boundary of a proposed business improvement district in downtown Asheville during a stakeholder engagement meeting on Feb. 6. PUMA is a Colorado-based consultancy hired by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce to develop a BID proposal. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

In 2012, Randy Talley wasn’t particularly alarmed by safety or cleanliness issues in downtown Asheville. Or rather, he trusted the City of Asheville to handle those things. The owner of two Green Sage restaurants had survived the 2008 financial crisis, and “by 2012, it looked like all ships were rising in downtown Asheville,” he says.

So the restaurateur didn’t see a pressing need for a business improvement district downtown, despite Asheville City Council’s 2009 Master Plan that included plans to establish one. A business improvement district, or BID, is an independent nonprofit that collects an assessment from eligible property owners within a geographical area. Owners are assessed via their property taxes, and an appointed board allocates funds to provide supplemental services — like increased cleanliness and hiring street “guides” to assist tourists with directions — to those provided by municipal government.

Of the 2012 BID, “what I heard was ‘we want to raise taxes,’” Talley tells Xpress. “I’m already paying taxes to be downtown. … I don’t need someone to take graffiti off my building.” He did that himself.

Though the City Council approved the BID proposal in 2012, it never funded it. And in the decade-plus since, a lot has changed in downtown Asheville. Talley notes that in January and February 2019, his businesses were profitable, despite winter being a slower time for local tourism. But “that hasn’t happened since,” he explains, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the biggest turning point. He’s seen his profits decline and cleanliness in downtown Asheville deteriorate. He notes he has less competition, due to nearby restaurant closures, too.

On Feb. 6, consultants hired by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce held three public presentations about another proposal for a BID in downtown Asheville. The plan would assess 9 cents per $100 of value in a property for property owners and residents to provide enhanced safety, hospitality and cleaning services.

Talley is all in on supporting a BID this time around. “It’s a business decision on my part,” he explains. “We’ve got to do something radical. We have to do something completely different.”

Who is responsible for downtown?

Not every downtown property owner is enthusiastic, however. Among those who are skeptical, the point of contention is whether a BID overburdens downtown taxpayers for basic services that should be provided by the City of Asheville and Buncombe County.

The purpose of a BID is to provide supplemental services within a business district, says former property manager Karen Ramshaw, who attended the Feb. 6 presentation. But she doesn’t see the city and county as able to accomplish that. “My biggest concern now is that the BID is going to be a way for the city and the county to pass on more of the costs to downtown property owners than we should be asked to carry,” she says.

Ramshaw believes local government has consistently decreased attention to downtown’s needs. She was particularly frustrated by the 60-day “downtown safety initiative” that the City of Asheville instituted last summer. At a July 14 meeting of the Downtown Commission, which she attended, city employees updated the commission on progress. The initiative resolved dozens of street lighting issues, removed graffiti and performed “hot-spot” cleaning areas where litter accumulates.

“Most of the things they were bringing up were delayed maintenance,” Ramshaw says of the 60-day initiative. For example, during the initiative the city “removed over 4,000 graffiti tags in 60 days,” she continues. “How do we have over 4,000 graffiti tags in our little downtown? … I saw it as proof of city neglect.”

Ramshaw oversaw property for three decades for Public Interest Projects, a real estate developer behind Rabbit Rabbit, The Orange Peel and numerous residential apartment buildings. “As downtown property owners, as downtown business owners and friends of mine who are downtown residents … we are willing to put in a little more to get more,” she says. “What we’re not willing to do is to pay even more for less [attentiveness to downtown’s needs], which is how it has felt for quite some time.”

Downtown’s destiny

In 2012, detractors of the Asheville BID opposed the collection of taxes from an unelected board that had the authority to determine how to spend it.

But for some business owners in 2024, that’s precisely the appeal.

“I think the biggest thing it could offer is a chance for downtown to take its destiny in its own hands,” says Eva-Michelle Spicer, co-owner of Spicer Greene Jewelers and a member of the BID Steering Committee.  “We’re kind of at the mercy of what the mayor and City Council decide for us.”

“If I pay a nickel and I also have a seat at the table and help leverage $1 of benefit …  then I’m all for it,” says Talley, the owner of Green Sage. (He noted that he doesn’t own the property at his 5 Broadway restaurant, but his rent pays for the property taxes.)

Another perceived asset of BIDs is the ability to be nimble in a way that is not always possible for the government. Downtown residential property owner Kim MacQueen referenced break-ins that occurred in downtown businesses in 2022 and 2023. “A BID could decide, ‘Let’s take this pocket of money that we’re not spending and hire a security guard, from midnight till 3,’” says MacQueen, who was co-chair of the committee that proposed how to implement the 2012 BID. “A city can’t do that because everything’s budgeted for the year. That’s the beauty of a rapid response institution.”

Talley also agrees, “We need to have an expeditious way to solve the problems.” He envisions employees working for the BID would have more direct access to relevant city and county agencies, as well as more time to see those problems be addressed than property owners do.

Adds Spicer, “The BID’s not going to have policy enforcement [responsibilities], but it’ll have enough money behind it to actually get something done.”

TAKING MORE CONTROL: At a Feb. 6 meeting of downtown stakeholders, Brad Segal, president of Progressive Urban Management Associates, says a BID would be self-governed by an appointed board. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

A successful tourism economy and the livelihood of downtown workers are other reasons supporters like Spicer want a BID. She called the 60-day safety initiative that the City of Asheville announced in April “fantastic,” and sees a BID as a mechanism to increase “comfortability” downtown. “We have to have a clean and safe downtown, period,” she says.

Spicer wants to see increased pressure-washing in parking garages downtown. “The Wall Street garage, the stairs right there?” She shuddered, gesturing to the City of Asheville-maintained parking facility near her store. “We need to improve the perception of a clean and safe downtown and for folks to know that downtown is a safe place,” she explains. “Because if nobody’s coming downtown, that hurts us all.”

Andrew Celwyn, co-owner of the herb shop Herbiary, has been part of two BIDs in Philadelphia, where his store has another location. Based on those experiences, Celwyn believes a BID in Asheville would be beneficial. “Downtown is different than the rest of the city or the county,” he tells Xpress. “With so much more foot and vehicular traffic, it has much greater needs for services to maintain it. Having a BID is one way to keep up with a part of the city that works on a different pace.”

‘A proven idea’

The BID would be self-governed by an appointed board. Brad Segal, president of Progressive Urban Management Associates in Denver, a consultancy hired by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, said at a Feb. 6 meeting of BID stakeholders that the board’s initial slate would be developed with the steering committee and partners like the Asheville Downtown Association. (Among those on the steering committee include Spicer, Himanshu Karvir of Virtelle Hospitality, JB McKibbon IV of McKibbon Hospitality and Tim Rosebrock of Biltmore Company. The full list is at Board members would have term limits; as vacancies occur, the BID board would submit options to City Council for approval.

Multiple downtown property owners who spoke to Xpress said they were heartened that so many other communities have BIDs. The United States has over 1,000 BIDs nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some cities even have several BIDs apiece.

“I think the BID is a good idea because it’s a proven idea,” Talley says. He also touches on a topic that PUMA discussed in its presentation: the lack of trust that many citizens have in their government.

“The biggest problem that Asheville faces right now is that the stakeholders don’t trust each other,” Talley says. “If you don’t trust the city, why would you make the city fix the problem that you can fix? … They clearly need help.”

March 20, 2024: This article has an updated assessment figure, updated operating budget from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and a link to a list of members the Downtown BID steering committee.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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7 thoughts on “Downtown mulls 2024 business improvement district proposal

  1. Mike Rains

    As usual Asheville, the concept of a downtown taxing district is already taken too far.

    “Hospitality guides”? Are you kidding?

    Keep the streets and sidewalks clean; I mean really clean. Beef up safety patrols with OT to police officers and Sheriff’s deputies, AS NEEDED. Fix the mountain of broken brick sidwalks and other public hazards. Keep the public toliets very clean and in good operating condition. Maybe buy some really nice Christmas decorations for downtown and fund the installation and removal. “Hospitality guides”? Not needed.

    Not certain where the taxing levy of .09/100 valuation was cooked up but it sounds high to me. Is there a trial budget developed for this tax rate? Start lower and keep the goals realistic.

    FInally, including downtown residents in this special district taxing authority is a big mistake. It should only be assessed against businesses and/or property owners of commerical property. Do you want to have residents downtown or not?

    • Think about it

      I have to agree here, this is a ludicrous money grab. The tax rate apparently proposed is just silly. As noted by Mike Rains why doesn’t anything focus on fixing actual problems and if I may add… working within an actual budget to do so. Everyday there is some overtly ridiculous plan to raise or mismanage funds. O am beginning to believe that these are the only activities in which this local government desires to excel.

      • Math

        Are you doing the math right?

        Property taxpayers within the BID would pay $0.0919 per $100 of assessed value.
        Examples of annual assessments:
        • A building assessed at $500,000, divided by $100=5,000 x 0.0919=$459.50
        • A building assessed at $1,000,000, divided by $100=10,000 x 0.0919=$919

        • Think about it

          If you are asking me, then yeah, my math is correct. Until this government figures put how to actual balance their spending versus revenues then any tax increase is a fraud. They generate enough tax revenue to provide true infrastructure expenses, but we are consistently faced woth these white elephant or other spurious projects which waste that revenue and cause these exercises in fleecing the residents of Asheville.

  2. avlsouth

    I think there needs to be some increase for downtown for keeping it clean and safe. I live in the city limits and do not want to pay for things that only benefit downtown.

  3. Bright

    Asheville still needs a reliable water/sewage supply! Why can’t these people delay gratification and garner a good foundation upon which they want to build their megalopolis? What kind of indulgent upbringing allows them to fleece the taxpayers by building on a lousy foundation? Get some emotional stability to recommend yourself, wonderkids.

  4. KarenR

    A BID allows an area to tax itself a higher rate in order to pay for ADDITIONAL services. In the period since the first BID was proposed, the value of downtown has more than doubled, yet that increase in tax revenues from downtown has resulted in fewer services (remember when we had a downtown police force and public bathrooms?). When the first BID was proposed, both the City and the County were to pay into the BID as well as they own significant property in the CBD. Only 70% of the properties in the new BID pay property taxes, yet 100% of the properties will receive services. Over the past years it has become increasingly apparent that the City of Asheville is incapable of maintaining our community assets. The Thomas Wolfe auditorium was closed for months for emergency repairs and needs a multi-million dollar uplift. The Civic Center parking garage is in poor condition and needs significant investment. And let’s not forget the prime real estate at the gateway to our downtown, commonly referred to as the Pit of Despair. As quoted in the article, the 60-day initiative report was an embarrassing list of overdue maintenance. The City is not doing an adequate job FOR downtown considering the money received FROM downtown. Like the vast majority of downtown property owners, we maintain our properties in good condition, remove graffiti in a timely way, keep our systems working well, and take responsibility and pride for our very small corner of the City. I am willing to be part of a BID providing enhanced services, but I am not willing to pay for basic services we more than pay for already, nor is it fair to ask a handful of property owners to provide additional maintenance for City and County facilities used by all taxpayers. Council and City staff really want it though so expect my tax bill to go up soon.

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