Business improvement district recommended for Old Town

Business improvement district recommended for Old Town

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The governance subcommittee of the waterfront commission recommended establishing a business improvement district for Old Town and the waterfront at a meeting last week as a way to kick-start maintenance and programming at the soon-to-be redeveloped area.

Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the BID is anticipated to cost an extra 5 to 7 cents per $100 in an additional property tax levied on businesses within the BID’s boundaries.

In a 2014 report, city staff said that the expectations of maintenance and programming in the area will be higher than those of city parks, and will not be possible under the current structure. The governance subcommittee was thus formed to analyze various future options.

The Hotel Indigo is under construction at 220 S. Union St., while the Old Dominion Boat Club’s clubhouse as well as Robinson Terminal North and Robinson Terminal South are slated for redevelopment. The area is planned to house residential units, retail space and restaurants, as well as improved piers and other public amenities.

Subcommittee chairwoman Kathryn Kolbe said at the meeting that the group studied five options for the waterfront once it is built out, and decided a BID is best.

Kolbe said a BID allows businesses to determine its scope of work, and gives a voice to all stakeholders as existing commercial properties look to integrate with new development. She added that with city services stretched already, it can help carry some of the workload that cannot be borne by city dollars.

“They have become a very attractive management tool for local governments to use,” Kolbe said.

In a meeting attended by business owners and city leaders, there was broad support for the proposed BID, with a consensus appearing to form around having the BID market Old Town and help with beautification.

“We know what we have right now is unique, but a 30-something couple in D.C. does not and is not coming here,” said Danielle Romanetti, owner of fibre space.

In an interview after the meeting, Alexandria Small Business Development Center executive director Bill Reagan said the BID could fill gaps not being filled by government services.

“I have heard over time many business owners request aspects that would not be available through just your regular city services: aspects such as more frequent cleaning of the sidewalks, more marketing, more attractive features such as hanging baskets or tree wells,” Reagan said.

Some opponents remain skeptical about the BID’s ability to fill in where city services fall short.

“The city already collects a lot of money from property owners in those areas,” said resident Bert Ely after the meeting. “The question I would ask is why can’t the city just do a better job of managing those facilities?”

Former City Councilor Frank Fannon warned in the meeting of setting a dangerous precedent by creating a special tax district, something that has been used to help fund the planned Potomac Yard Metro station. Mayor Allison Silberberg said the proposal requires a great deal of further study, especially given its long-term implications.

“The only thing I have to think about is we have to be careful, and think about future councils when you think about this tax and what it will be,” she said.

Reagan said businesses and commercial property owners may be more inclined to pay an additional tax to help set up the BID if they can see the direct benefits.

“Certainly they don’t want to pay any more tax than they have to, but if there’s a tax that would lead to amenities that they would like to have in their shopping district, that they think would enhance the appeal of that shopping district to their customers and to their employees, then they would be the ones to say they’d be willing to step up and pay this,” he said.

One BID that has made great strides in recent years is in Crystal City in Arlington, an area that struggled with the economic crisis and the effects of base realignment and closure. Established in April 2006 as a nonprofit 501(c)6, president and CEO Angela Fox said it started with small events and programming and has since grown in scope.

Fox said the BID is kept accountable by having a work plan devised by stakeholders, while a board of directors and an independent external audit each year keep the organization true to its objectives.

“We’ve been doing this for so long, there’s a deep sense of trust that now we can advise the county on better practices that will really help promote business,” she said. “Both the county and the property owners think we’re an extension of them, so we’re an organization that fits in between the two of them and really helps bridge gaps between the business community and the county.”

Kolbe said the next step for starting a BID would be to form an exploratory committee with various stakeholders to determine the district’s parameters and boundaries, a process she said would likely take seven to nine months. City council would then vote on the proposal.

Council has appropriated $25,000 to study the viability of a BID in the fiscal 2017 budget. The subcommittee presented its findings Wednesday to the Old Town Civic Association, after the Times’ deadline.