Clash over proposed business improvement district heats up

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By James Cullum | jcullum@alextimes.com

Arguments surrounding a proposed Business Improvement District for Old Town have grown heated within Alexandria’s business community, leading to shouting matches and name calling. On April 11, a member of the BID committee responded in an email to the concerns of a business property owner by calling him a “borderline idiot and [who] clearly [has] no grasp of what has been proposed.”

The email prompted Yvonne Weight Callahan, president of the Old Town Civic Association, to admonish the member.

“I have to say that I am totally shocked that a member of the BID committee has engaged in such inflammatory rhetoric by such name calling,” Callahan wrote. “By and large, Alexandrians have engaged in pretty modulated discourse, and do not call each other idiots.”

Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg said she has received a flood of phone calls and emails on the proposed BID.

“Some are for, many are against,” Silberberg told the Alexandria Times. “Two main reasons to have a BID are for events and marketing and we have a lot of events in Old Town and we have marketing with Visit Alexandria. I don’t want to duplicate service, and a BID tax would come at a time when businesses are hurting.”

If city council approves the measure in June, around 730 Alexandria business owners across more than 600 properties throughout 100 city blocks of 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. That tax increase would not go into effect, however, until 2018.

Old Town would join a number of neighboring jurisdictions with BIDs, including Ballston, Crystal City and 10 BIDs in Washington, D.C.

Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said he is gauging support for a BID within the business community.

“The business community pushed us to look at this, and if there is support, I will be supportive,” he said. “We have to do something to give a jolt to our central business district. The idea has merit. It has worked in a lot of other locations.”

Patricia Washington, president of Visit Alexandria, the city’s tourism bureau, touted the record $771 million in annual visitor spending brought into the city last year, including 1.88 million website visits to VisitAlexandriaVA.com. She said that it is common for a locality to have both a BID and a destination marketing organization. The difference, she said, is that as a destination marketing organization, Visit Alexandria’s focus is on attracting visitors and tourists, while a BID is designed to attract locals.

Washington said that Visit Alexandria has gone beyond its mission with the promotion of local events like Restaurant Week, Black Friday and sidewalk sales.

“There is this under marketed opportunity to develop local business, which is key to preserve our downtown core,” Washington said. “I think the key is how are we going to fully develop our regional market, and keep our downtown thriving without weakening our destination budget.”

The Old Town BID proposal calls for a $2 million annual budget, including $280,000 intended for salaries and administration, $700,000 for branding and marketing, $670,000 for street cleaning, $200,000 for streetscape improvements and $40,000 for public art. Those allocations would be voted on by a 20-to-25 member board of directors.

“You walk down King Street, I think you see tree wells that can’t be maintained adequately,” Washington said. “You see infrastructure, wayfinding, beautification in terms of trees, flowers, hanging baskets, banners and things that you see in other communities needed to improve the experience for guests – things that we are not currently doing.

“Streetscape, ongoing cleanliness, special events, all those things are traditional BID functions that we do not have in destination marketing organizations,” she said. “There’s a quality of experience in Alexandria that has been neglected.

Silberberg said that a BID tax is not necessary to make beautification improvements.

“I argue that the city could do better in regard to that,” she said. “I don’t know if that requires a BID. People can give to the city’s living landscape fund and earmark it for a certain section.”

The owner of Red Mei at 602 King St., Kanchana Phenghua, said she is afraid that the BID tax will cause her restaurant to shutter.

“If they add more tax, more expense to an already overtaxed area, that will drive me out of business,” she said. “I try to fulfill customer needs with very affordable prices. My menu is not for the elite. It’s just $7.95 per entree. So, this is very hard on us.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that city council would consider establishing a BID and its tax rate this May. Instead, there is a council work session in May, and a public hearing in June, where council will only consider whether to approve the BID structure. A vote on a BID tax level would take place in 2018. The Times regrets the error.

 

 

 

 

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