City’s Old Town BID decision met with mixed reactions

City’s Old Town BID decision met with mixed reactions
Old Town

By Alexa Epitropoulos | 

More than a year after an exploratory committee began developing plans to create a business improvement district in Old Town, City Manager Mark Jinks announced the city is abandoning the effort.

Jinks made the announcement late Tuesday evening, at the end of city council’s legislative meeting, citing feedback from the exploratory committee that they could not devote the time and effort to put together a new BID framework that would garner majority approval from business or property owners.

“They felt they had spent a large amount of time and effort on the BID plan already and felt they needed to basically focus on their own individual businesses,” Jinks said at the meeting. It’s clear, however, that not all members of the exploratory committee fell into that category.

Victoria Vergason, owner of The Hour and an exploratory committee member, spoke
out about Jinks’ reasoning on Tuesday on a public Facebook post from the city.

Victoria Vergason is the owner of King Street shop The Hour (File photo)

“The idea that our significant amount of time and work spent on the BID proposal should be turned against us is unfathomable and, quite frankly, disgusting. Let the city manager and city council take the blame for their own failures to act. And let them fall in our next election for their failure to lead in this and so many other important issues facing our city,” Vergason said in the Facebook comment.

The BID’s withdrawal provoked mixed reactions from council, particularly from Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who have differing views on the issue.

Silberberg said she has consistently been against the tax on the Old Town business community that would be needed to fund a BID.

“I think Mr. Jinks has laid out his feelings about the proposal. I’ve been clear and consistent about mine,” Silberberg said.

She said, ultimately, the majority of the business community was against the proposed Old Town BID.

“We’ve heard from them and, at the end of the day, the business community overall had strong concerns and I did as well,” Silberberg said.

Wilson said the exploratory committee came up with a good framework, and said he didn’t expect this to be the last BID proposal to come up.

“I think it will be back at some point, until it’s been sufficiently heard,” Wilson said. “If the business community wants it, it’s something we should do.”

When the BID proposal was brought before council in June, several council members said public feedback was running about three-to-one in opposition. Rather than hold an up or down vote on the initiative, council unanimously approved a memorandum
proposed by Wilson and Councilman Paul Smedberg.

The memorandum directed the city manager to bring a revamped BID proposal forward in the fall with revised boundaries, a specific list of services and a framework budget. If the proposal was approved by a majority vote by either business or property owners, city council was set to deliberate and vote on it no later than October of this year.

Jinks said, though he believes a BID is in the best interest of Old Town, it wasn’t appropriate for city government to lead the effort.

“It’s important that the BID is not something that is government-led,” Jinks said. “Almost

City Manager Mark Jinks

universally, BIDs grow out of the business community and are advocated by the business community.”

Jinks said Old Town’s business community is, however, at a “turning point” and faces pressure on multiple fronts, from the rapid growth of online sales to encroaching competition from across the river at The Wharf D.C., a massive retail development that will see more than 20 restaurants, coffee shops and bars open in the coming months.

“We’ve had almost a lock on downtown waterfront entertainment, restaurants and retail opportunities and, now with The Wharf in the district, that project is worth about $2 billion in investment and it’s going to be major competition,” Jinks said.

Additionally, Old Town may soon undergo rapid change, as North Carolina-based development company Asana has bought up 20 storefronts in Old Town, which are collectively worth approximately $100 million, according to a report from the Washington Business Journal.

It likely won’t be the final BID deliberation, as Jinks agreed with Wilson that this step does not mean the city is closed off to the concept of a BID.

“It’s something that will be worth revisiting in a couple of years,” Jinks said. “This will be a wait-and-see situation.”

The latest BID effort faced a similar fate as its predecessor, which was proposed in 2005 and defeated the same year. Wilson said that the timeframe of the next proposal depends on impacted parties – namely, business owners.

“That’s up to the people it would benefit,” Wilson said.

He said there is community support for the measure, and that council takes responsibility for not finding a path forward at this time.

“I think we heard broad-based support for the measure. The question is ‘how do you make it happen?’ We couldn’t quite get to that – and that’s on us,” he said.

Silberberg said a BID wouldn’t fix the biggest issues facing small business in Alexandria, including parking and online sales. Meanwhile, she said, Visit Alexandria provides many services that a prospective BID would have provided.

“What I think we should [do] is come together … I think we should harness energy and work toward solutions,” Silberberg said.

Silberberg said she encouraged feedback from local businesses, and that she is working toward organizing a recurring business roundtable coffee session.

“While it might be good for Rosslyn or Crystal City, it’s not Old Town – and this is an incredible place,” Silberberg said. “I don’t feel it’s right for us.”