Business improvement districts: Right for Alexandria?

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Business improvement districts have proven successful for neighborhoods in nearby Arlington and they may be on the horizon for Alexandria, local economic experts say.

While Alexandria has a plethora of business associations dedicated to boosting sales by bettering individual neighborhoods like Del Ray, the city lacks the carefully designed and taxpayer-supported districts.

It’s a concept that’s been raised on and off again in recent years, though without popular support.

“When I came to the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce two-and-a-half years ago, we were doing programs about BIDs and trying to spur up some interest to see if this could have a go, but obviously, it didn’t go anywhere,” said Alexandria Chamber of Commerce President Tina Leone. She recently accepted a position leading the newly created Ballston BID in Arlington. “It just tells you the level of interest or the financial wherewithal isn’t there.”

To create a BID, a majority of the proposed district’s business property owners must agree to take on an extra tax, the proceeds from which are dedicated to addressing the area’s needs. In nearby Crystal City, businesses banded together to create a BID five years ago. They feared the Base Realignment and Closure Act would dampen the neighborhood, said President and CEO Angela Fox.

“The business community came together in partnership with local government to come up with a solution,” she said. “At their fundamental core, what a BID is designed to do is solve an area’s problems or really be the group that is the most focused on [the question of] what is that area now and what should it be? What can we do to make sure it is a long-term, sustainable community?”

Worried about federal downsizing’s effect on the community, the Crystal City BID began organizing events, like road races and farmers markets, and beautified the neighborhood. Both aimed at drawing visitors and engaging residents and area employees.

Other BIDs might focus on creating a clean environment or making a given neighborhood safer — they can be flexible in their goals, Fox said.

“One of the key aspects of a thriving community is a really good balance,” she said. “We basically were formed to address some of these overarching issues.”

But while BIDs have shown success elsewhere — New York boasts 64 districts, which pump about $100 million into local programs annually — they may not be suited for every neighborhood. In Old Town, where officials once raised the idea of creating a King Street BID, business owners like Elizabeth Todd are opposed to the concept.

“Locally owned, single-unit merchants are sensitive to any increase in overhead costs,” said Todd, who owns and operates the Shoe Hive boutique. “Most of Alexandria’s boutique owners work in their own stores day in and day out for years before they become profitable.”

Todd recommends BID proponents look away from Old Town and into neighborhoods like Carlyle. Areas anchored by national and international companies boasting high-rise residential communities make a better home for BIDs, she said.

And Carlyle is one of the neighborhoods Stephanie Landrum of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership believes will one day host a BID. Old Town and Del Ray have a large amount of individual property and business owners, making it difficult to get a BID started, Landrum said. When the Potomac Yard and Landmark neighborhoods eventually are redeveloped, they likely will be perfect areas to craft into BIDs.

“I think it’s mostly because of the type of ownership you’re going to have [in Carlyle, Landmark and Potomac Yard] and the ability to create the framework prior to development,” Landrum said. “That’s always going to be the challenge in Old Town. Unless someone comes in and starts buying all the property, you’re always going to have something on the order of 300 property owners to talk to and get to agree.”

If BIDs prove successful in other parts of Alexandria, as they have in Arlington, Landrum wouldn’t be surprised to see Old Town business owners take a favorable view of the concept.

“What might end up happening here in Old Town, you might see a BID somewhere else in the city and the people who live and work in Old Town might see the value of a BID first hand,” she said.

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