The Times has learned that during the year-long exploration process for a potential Business Improvement District for Old Town, anti-BID voices have repeatedly been denied opportunities for meaningful input. The BID exploratory committee’s purpose, as explained by Stephanie Landrum, who heads the committee, has been to determine how to structure a BID, not whether or not there should be one. Landrum is president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.
Unlike many jurisdictions with business districts, Alexandria’s BID proposal does not provide for affected business owners or residents to vote on whether to authorize a BID. The District of Columbia has an opt-in requirement whereby a majority of affected business owners must vote in favor before a BID can be established.While Virginia code governing the establishment of improvement districts does not mandate a vote, it also does not prohibit one. Tina Leone, CEO of the Ballston BID, has said that they conducted a tally of potentially affected businesses – and found a majority supported it – before their district was established. In addition, D.C. requires periodic re-votes within established BIDS in order for them to be renewed.
The lack of public input on Alexandria’s proposed BID is coming to a head in advance of Tuesday night’s city council work session, at which pro- and anti-BID panels, which were selected by City Manager Mark Jinks, are slated to testify before council. A public hearing on whether to establish a BID is slated for June 24, the same date that the proposal is scheduled for a vote.
This expedited timeframe, and lack of input for those opposed to a BID during the process, has a group of Alexandrians, led by the Old Town Civic Association, ready to picket Tuesday’s meeting, slated for 7 p.m. at the Durant Arts Center at 1605 Cameron St.
Yvonne Weight Callahan, president of the OTCA, is one of the people left out from having a seat at the table.
“At almost all [of their meetings] they excluded residents from coming and attending and speaking,” she said. “I tried to go to them and was told that is not appropriate.”
She wanted to attend another meeting in mid-March that was held at Landini’s restaurant, but was told it was for the small business association only.
“There are no residents on the BID and no interaction with the largest civic associating in Old Town…[There were] not enough meetings set up to have a good dialogue,” Callahan said.
Landrum said this exclusion was deliberate and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching.
“This process has been going on for a year,” she said. “We weren’t exploring how not to do a BID. We’re exploring how to do a BID, so we have preliminary meetings with a much larger group and the people who decided that they didn’t like a BID or couldn’t support a BID, they stopped exploring.”
Businessman E. Hunt Burke, Chairman and CEO of Burke & Herbert Bank, an Alexandria institution since 1852, described himself in a letter as “pro-business, pro-retail and pro-Alexandria” but, nonetheless, expressed concern with the BID process.
“I was invited into the BID committee discussion in mid- 2016. I came in with an open mind and a few questions,” Burke said in the letter. “I was surprised to find that the meeting was not about the concept of a BID but more about how fast approval could be pushed through the city council with a goal of January or February of 2017 for a pro-BID outcome.”
“Details were scarce,” he continued. “I felt as though my questions and concerns were not addressed.”
Burke also expressed concern that the BID was being pushed by people he considered to be outsiders, rather than people who would be directly affected by the new tax.
“Interestingly, neither some of the business owners at the meeting nor the representatives of the AEDP appear to own commercial real estate in the BID zone.
In short, their plans and the proposed new BID bureaucracy are to be paid for by a tax increase on others,” Burke said. “Frankly, some of the reasons voiced in favor of the BID seemed far fetched.”
Kim Putens, owner of Bloomers and a business owner for 17 years, will speak at Tuesday’s meeting on the anti-BID panel.
Putens said she felt shut out of the process to this point.
“I’ve been feeling like this has been rammed down our throat from the very beginning,” Putens said.
“When I found out that the BID was going on, I asked to participate in the BID exploratory committee and then I was told [by AEDP] that they were only going forward with those who support it on the committee. So I said, ‘How can you come up with a plan if you don’t look at different sides and different opinions?’”
Jinks said the two panels at the Tuesday meeting were not intended to exclude input, but rather are just the way work sessions operate.
“Work sessions are not public hearings,” he said. “They are the presentation of information to the governing body. “…and so I said, as part of the evening work session… have a group of folks who are… against the BID also tell council what their concerns are and what their issues are and what their position is, whether it’s process issues, whether it’s the whole concept itself.”
Other Alexandrians, including Mayor Allison Silberberg, expressed reservations about the timeframe for the process.
“I’m hearing strong concerns,” she said. “I just feel that we need more input. I’ve asked, ‘What’s the rush? Why not wait until fall?’ The council, we could decide to wait until fall to have even more time to wait to think about this. I’m keeping an open mind, but I have definitely expressed strong concerns.”
Silberberg said she had received more than 50 letters, emails, calls and messages about the BID and that sentiment has been seven- or eight-to-one against the proposal. Burke also expressed concern with the seemingly heavy-handed manner in which the BID is being considered.
“I am opposed to the sense of urgency with which the proposal is being rushed to a vote,” Burke said in the letter. “…Those with whom I have spoken know little or nothing about the pros and cons being discussed. Accordingly, I have three new questions: What is the hurry on such an important issue? Why is it all or nothing – without more discourse on what is right and fair to the majority of property owners in Old Town? Why are alternatives not being discussed?”
Landrum, however, said she feels it’s now or never for an Old Town BID.
“…If [the BID proposal] does not pass, then there is no point bringing it back forward,” Landrum said. “I don’t think there will be a round two – ‘let’s try this again.’ I think that one of the problems that the BID is trying to solve is that city resources are limited and it is hard for me to imagine the city coming up with $1 million or $2 million to give to any other group to work on some of the issues that have been identified through this BID proposal.”
Burke, however, does not view this spring as the only shot at a BID.
“I am not proposing that the issue be scrapped, but that we take the time to bring all taxpayers in the BID to the table and be willing to compromise and recognize that we are all concerned with the best interest of our businesses and our city,” he said. Callahan also advocated for a slowdown in the process. “They are pushing this too fast,” she said. “Too, too fast.”