By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
Those battling over a proposed Old Town business improvement district came face-to- face at a city council work session on Tuesday evening, where pro- and anti-BID speakers, council and city officials gathered for a panel discussion.
The pro-BID panel – consisting of Victoria Vergason, owner of The Hour on King Street; Deana Rhodeside, the founder and principal of Rhodeside & Harwell; Tom Osborne, the owner of residential and commercial properties in Old Town and Scott Shaw, restaurateur and developer in Old Town – argued that passing a BID is vital to keeping Old Town relevant in a time of growing competition from other areas, including D.C.’s southwest waterfront.
The anti-BID panel – consisting of Roger Digilio, the owner of residential and commercial properties in Old Town; Bert Ely, Vice President of the Old Town Civic Association; Kim Putens, owner of Bloomers on King Street and Dan Hazelwood, a resident of Old Town in the proposed BID area and a commercial property owner – argued that the process of developing a BID has been deeply flawed and lacked transparency and that the proposed plan needs to be scrapped.
Each panel member was given five minutes to explain why he or she was for or against, a limit that nearly every member exceeded. After the initial panel discussion, each side was given five additional minutes to respond to the arguments of the other side. Members of city council then had the opportunity to ask questions of panel members and Stephanie Landrum, President and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, who heads the BID exploratory committee.
The work session was the first time the issue has come before council since the 13-member BID exploratory committee was formed last year. Two public information meetings have been held by the exploratory committee to date. It’s all leading up to a vote later this month, on June 24, where city council will pass, reject or defer a BID. If the BID is passed, a board will be formed to develop a final work plan that city council will, in turn, vote to accept or reject early next year.
Although the discussion itself remained relatively civil, there was some sparring between members of the opposing panels, as well as some interaction from crowd members, particularly from those holding anti-BID signs. Members of the public were not allowed to speak at the work session.
Bidding for change
Members of the pro-BID side of the panel came to the table with a number of concerns about the future of Old Town, including its sustainability, its relevance and how competitive it is against other areas that are becoming trendier and more attractive to millennial customers.
Victoria Vergason, who has lived in Old Town for 20 years and owns the commercial property on the 1000 block of King Street that her small business occupies, said Old Town’s commercial district is struggling to compete with other areas in Northern Virginia and D.C.
“I see too many small businesses closing down and many struggling to survive,” Vergason said. “Our small businesses struggle to compete with other BID districts.”
She called a BID a “critical tool,” something that fellow panel member, Deana Rhodeside, agreed with. Rhodeside said, as an urban planner, she has worked with many areas that have already implemented a BID, including golden triangle and NoMa in D.C.
“The business environment has changed significantly in the past eight years. Washington, D.C. has evolved into a highly competitive business market,” Rhodeside said. “It’s hip, cutting-edge and attractive.”
Scott Shaw, a restaurateur who owns Vola’s and The Majestic and manages Virtue Feed & Grain within the proposed BID boundaries, said it’s a solution for Old Town at a time when other areas are moving forward.
“If we don’t help businesses survive or thrive, this has a very bad ending – high property taxes,” Shaw said.
Back to the drawing board
Those on the anti-BID panel shared many of the same concerns, but said the process of
putting together a BID has excluded most stakeholders and that the ordinance, as it stands, needs to be scrapped altogether.
“I have, after a lot of research and looking at documents and talking to a lot of people, come to the conclusion that I don’t think this BID is ready for prime time,” said Kim Putens, an Old Town business owner of 15 years.
Roger Digilio said many of the major problems that Old Town’s small businesses face, like parking, will remain unsolved and said that development on Alexandria’s waterfront will be unfairly prioritized by a BID.
“Some businesses will benefit from a better waterfront. But when it comes to places like 1101 King St., I don’t see them benefitting one iota from the money they will spend – and it will be a significant amount.”
Dan Hazelwood criticized both how the BID plan was put together and the initial work plan put together by the exploratory committee.
“I’ve walked into 70 businesses and spoken with them about the BID tax. The universal reaction is that they’re being punched in the gut,” Hazelwood said. “These boundaries were drawn for tax purposes. No sane person would draw this map.”
Hazelwood called the process secretive, lengthy and undemocratic. He said the BID would end up creating more problems than it would solve.
“This BID was produced by a lack of transparency and we need to end it now,” Hazelwood said.
After the initial panel discussion concluded, panel members were given the opportunity to respond.
While the pro-BID panel argued that most of the anti-BID’s arguments were unfounded, the anti-BID argued that the other side was short on answers.
The pro-BID panel said it wasn’t the exploratory committee’s job to decide what the BID would eventually be.
“What we’re talking about right now is the structure and getting something in place, not talking about what possible solutions will be once it is in place,” Rhodeside said.
Panel members also defended the process itself, with Vergason saying that there had been the proper amount of representation in the committee.
“Just because it’s not your voice doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a voice,” she said.
Anti-BID panel members argued that the BID needed to be discontinued for the time being.
“As a business owner, if I were to go to a bank or an investor, I would need to have a plan. The way it’s spelled out, there isn’t a plan,” Putens said. “It’s troubling that there’s no details on how this money will be spent.”
Hazelwood said there was no amount of tweaking that could make this BID proposal palatable to those opposed.
“This is broken without repair,” Hazelwood said.
City council members took time to ask questions of several panelists. Many members expressed concerns about the BID process, while others, particularly Paul Smedberg and Del Pepper, said, while initially in favor of a BID, they now had reservations.
Councilman Tim Lovain said the emails he has been getting have been, for the most part, three “against” for every one “for” the BID. He questioned whether Old Town business owners and residents were being effectively informed on the ordinance. Lovain also pointed out that the BID exploratory committee was vague in its outline of the BID’s goals.
“I wonder if it would be helpful to lay out…a list of what other BIDs have done,” Lovain said.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson observed that the city council’s June 24 vote on the BID would come down to whether the council believed “there is a design of some BID that [Old Town businesses] can agree on.” Landrum concurred, saying that answers regarding cost of the BID and services provided could not be discerned until after the ordinance was passed.
Pepper also referred to the numerous emails that she and other members of the council had been receiving from citizens concerned about the BID.
“[People] want to know…about what is perceived as a tax, what is seen as an addition to the real estate tax,” she said.
Pepper made the point that she is no longer sure about supporting the ordinance.
Smedberg came at the issue from a similar perspective, saying that he had hoped the
proposal would solve a “lack of business unity [in Old Town,” but seriously questioned how efficient a BID board of business owners would be if the council passed the ordinance.
“Given what I’ve seen so far, how is a 25-member board going to work in reality?” he asked.
Smedberg said there are a number of questions remaining for proponents of the BID to answer, including its overarching goals. He said without clarification, it will be difficult to get everyone on the same page.
“We need to question what Old Town is going to be like for the next 100 years. We need to reinvent,” Smedberg said. “I just have a lot of questions.”
Jack Mackey contributed to this report.