Business leaders unveil Old Town BID proposal

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By James Cullum (File photo)

After years of discussion and months of development, a plan for an Old Town Business Improvement District has been drafted, and will be presented to the public later this month.

If city council approves the measure, around 730 Alexandria business owners across more than 600 properties throughout Old Town, primarily along King, Duke and Washington streets, will be required to tack on 10 cents per $100 of assessed value to their property tax bills for marketing, branding, event programming and streetscape and transportation improvements.

Mayor Allison Silberberg said she is keeping an open mind on the issue.

“I think that there has been a lot of good work done on this, but I think there are still a lot of questions and careful study needed to ensure that we get the most bang for our buck,” she said. “This will add — if it’s created — a tax onto the business community in the BID at a time when there are fiscal challenges for many businesses, and we all want to make sure that we are creating entities that are helpful.”

Danielle Romanetti, owner of fibre space at 1219 King St., who has spent months serving on the 13-member Old Town BID exploratory committee, said local businesses need the BID to remain competitive with other neighborhoods in the region.

“This is the only way that Alexandria business owners can direct specific geographic funding,” she said. “The dream is that we are able to compete with our neighbors, that our restaurant and retail spaces are filled and that we create a marketable brand for Old Town.”

Organizers will present the proposal to the public on March 15 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Lyceum at 201 S. Washington St. They hope to be ready for a council work session in May and a public hearing and vote in June.

If approved, the BID tax would be levied beginning in 2018.

Romanetti also belongs to the 34-member Old Town Boutique District, and pays $1,500 in annual dues and chooses to spend an additional $1,300 annually for marketing. She said that the average Alexandria commercial tax bill will increase by around $750, and the monies collected will go directly back into projects approved by an independent board made up of leaders from the commercial and business community.

According to the proposal, the BID board of directors would be comprised of 20 to 25 individuals, voted upon by BID members to staggered three-year terms.

If approved, the Old Town BID would join a number of neighboring jurisdictions that use BIDs, including Ballston, Crystal City and 10 BIDs in D.C. The boundary would include more than 100 city blocks between the King Street Metro station and the waterfront, but would exclude the neighborhood of North Old Town, which is currently going through a process to revamp its small area plan.

Patty Brosmer, president of the D.C. BID Council and the Capitol Hill BID, said Old Town is ripe for the establishment of a BID. Brosmer served on the exploratory committee for the Capitol Hill BID in 2003, and since then property value growth has increased the BID’s programming budget from $450,000 in 2003 to $2.7 million today.

“You can’t wait for the city to provide the level of services that you need to compete in this marketplace,” she said. “Old Town is such a gem, and when you self-tax and decide on what’s important to your area, it really makes a difference.”

But Frank Fannon, a former Republican city councilor, opposes the initiative.

“It’s an economic downside, is what it is,” he said. “Once the city got back to one-party government, there was no fiscal restraint coming out of City Hall. They’re raising taxes this year, they raised them last year and then, when there’s an election they won’t raise taxes at all.”

Cindy McCartney, owner of Diva Consignment at 116 S. Pitt St., also opposes a BID. She said small business owners have no say in the final council vote, and fears that companies like hers along side streets will not get as much attention as those along the main drag of King Street.

“The tax would be a significant expense for my business,” she said. “I can’t speak for other businesses, but I would rather have that money to spend in a way … which would generate actual dollars for my store.”

But Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said under state law, city council must be the body to authorize the BID, unlike in D.C., where a vote by property owners is required.

“City council votes on issues every other week,” Landrum said. “They hold public hearings on these issues to get feedback and to provide opportunities for constituents to provide feedback. If they decide to docket this — and that’s an if — there will be a public hearing and people will testify and write emails and letters and make their case. And then city council will vote, just like they do on tens of other things every week.”

Tina Leone is president of the Ballston BID, and the former president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. The Ballston BID is a 501(c)6 nonprofit organization, and while much smaller in scope at 25 square blocks, will soon be unveiling free Wi-Fi throughout the district. It is also responsible for Ballston Connect mobile app, which tracks food trucks, happy hour specials, events and parking availability.

“We’ve seen a lot of success in the last five years with a team of four. It can be done,” she said. “I walk for two hours in Old Town every day, and King Street is a major tourist thoroughfare. It could be amazing. “It should be one of the streets that is recognized in the United States. You’ve got to get it there, and it takes money, it has to be well planned out, and it’s a good goal.”

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