Opinion: Old Town needs a BID

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Jody Manor
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To the editor:

Bittersweet Café closed last July after 33 years of daily operation. I made a necessary business decision, but I did so with a heavy heart. Foot traffic on King Street had been declining for years and impacted our sales and profitability.

Eventually, I saw the writing on the wall and leased the space to a larger organization with deeper resources. I put many long-term employees out of a job and left our many loyal customers without a meeting place. I still hear regularly that Bittersweet’s absence has left a hole in our community. And that is my biggest fear – losing what is unique and special about our business community. We face ever-increasing competition from neighboring cities that are embracing an economic future that includes successful business improvement districts. We must not be left behind.

Perhaps some of you are as old as me and recall the King Street of the late 1960s and on into the ’90s. Old Town was a sea of empty commercial buildings. The founders of Bittersweet were considered pioneers in 1983 when opening a shop on North Alfred Street due to the perilous nature of the neighborhood. Organizations like the Boutique District have been successful creating a community that promotes Alexandria as a marketable destination of unique small businesses. An Old Town business improvement district has the opportunity to be the next pioneer. 

It is unfortunate that so much misinformation regarding the BID has been disseminated to our community. Of course many are livid about the recently adopted property tax increase. The taxes on my commercial building increased 40 percent — more than $8,000 annually — due to increased assessment and the new rate. I’m not happy about that but recognize the hard decisions at hand.

An Old Town BID could: 

  • Create a unified voice for the business community
  • Help solve parking issues by directing visitors to available parking garages and lots rather than circling residential neighborhoods.
  • Provide regular programming in our public spaces like Market Square and the coming Fitzgerald Square.
  • Better leverage our existing special events such as First Night, St. Patrick’s Day and Scottish Walk and the George Washington birthday parade.
  • Negotiate with the city and private landholders to better welcome visitors to our city who arrive by motor coach.
  • Become a marketable destination as a hot spot for popups. A street of active retail space helps all businesses and reflects well on the city — especially to visitors. 
  • Include all stakeholders to participate in our business community through a BID fee for service. Currently it’s primarily small businesses that participate in and pay dues to the Chamber, Visit Alexandria, the Boutique District or OTBPA.
  • Create a negotiating partner for the city on matters of street maintenance and enhancements, setting a baseline of services through a memorandum of understanding that would create a contract between the city and BID.

All of these efforts will support small businesses and improve quality of life for residents. But most importantly, a strong and thriving business community generates tax revenue that lessens pressure on property tax rates.

One important missing piece of the puzzle is the cost.

There is nothing to say a tencent tax would be agreed to by a democratically elected BID Board. That said, in my own building I lease two spaces – 2000 and 900 square feet respectively. My 2016 assessment at a ten-cent BID service fee would mean a $49 and $30 per month contribution.

I don’t find that onerous given the potential outlined above and the danger if we don’t act.

We must take proactive steps to avoid what’s being referred to as the Retail Apocalypse.

Perhaps that term is a bit hyperbolic but let’s be real – the very nature of retail and what people seek in a destination is changing rapidly.

Shall we as a community meet the challenge or continue to slide into more vacancies and higher taxes?

– Jody Manor, Alexandria

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