Our View: To BID or not to BID is the wrong question

Our View: To BID or not to BID is the wrong question
Stephanie Landrum of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership presents at Tuesday's BID work session (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

It’s tough to get where you want to go if you choose the wrong departure point.

That’s our primary takeaway from Tuesday night’s city council work session, where pre-selected panels presented the case for and against a Business Improvement District in Old Town.

The proposal on the table lacks specifics on what a BID is supposed to accomplish. It became clear during the discussion that this omission is a fatal flaw in the eyes of anti-BID speakers, but was deliberate on the part of the BID exploratory committee.

The proposal shared Tuesday by Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, has three parts: First, council would approve formation of a BID; second, an election would be held to establish a BID governing board, which would recommend a BID tax rate, budget and determine what actions it should take; finally, council would set the BID tax rate.

Under this setup, affected business and property owners are being asked to support the establishment of a BID – which would likely end up taking $2 million or more in additional annual taxes from them – without knowing what it will do for them. This is akin to former President Richard Nixon saying during the 1968 election campaign that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, and we had only to elect him to find out what it was.

Council members asked good questions during the discussion, which was impressively civil for such a controversial topic. Councilman John Chapman, along with councilors Del Pepper and Tim Lovain, asked anti-BID panelists if nailing down specifics would enable them to support a BID. Vice Mayor Justin Wilson then asked whether those who are opposed to the BID proposal – who appear to outnumber those in favor by a roughly three-to-one margin – were against all BIDs or just this proposal.

Those questions are steps in the right direction, but they don’t go far enough. Where we are with this BID proposal seems to us a classic case of having put the cart before the horse and having run off the path entirely as a result.

Most people in the room Tuesday night appeared to be in agreement that Old Town is, in the words of one panelist, a bit worn. There was general agreement the Old and Historic District needs enhancements to make it more appealing to regional residents beyond Alexandria’s borders. We need to draw people to eat and shop here, rather than just tourists who come to see historic sites.

What should have happened first, and what still needs to happen now, is an extended discussion among Old Town stakeholders – business owners, commercial property owners, residents, business organizations – about what specific improvements they feel are needed.

Should tree wells be maintained uniformly? Should there be lights in trees on all of King Street? What kind of regional marketing campaign should we have? What is needed along the waterfront and how does that differ from what is needed on upper King Street?

Once there is consensus around what is needed, the next step is to determine how best to achieve the stated, agreed upon objectives. Maybe it’s through a BID, but maybe another type of delivery vehicle would be cheaper and more effective. Maybe multiple entities are needed to bring to fruition different categories of improvements or those in different parts of Old Town.

Rather than jumping straight to a large, unwieldy and expensive BID, and then trying to push it through over strong and growing opposition, city council needs to step back and let this discussion proceed down a different path.

A BID shouldn’t be the goal we have our sights set on. It should be one of several potential means to achieve agreed-upon objectives.