Our View: A BID reversal

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We applaud the decision by City Manager Mark Jinks to drop consideration of a business improvement district for Old Town. The announcement, made at the end of city council’s Tuesday night legislative session, was both surprising and inevitable.

How could it be both?

The move was surprising because, while there is grassroots opposition to many city initiatives, that disapproval almost never succeeds in blocking government action.
Once an idea is presented, such as the current proposed parking reduction for redevelopment projects, the relevant committee or task force is predictably filled with people who support the initiative. Thus, the outcome is essentially pre-ordained before the process even begins.

This time, though, outrage by the affected carried the day.

That’s because the BID initiative was doomed from conceptualization as it was attempted in a top-down manner.

Business improvement districts are by definition by businesses and for businesses. They really can’t be effective if imposed.

In contrast, this BID exploratory committee was formed at the directive of the city manager, was led by a city-funded entity – the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership – and was composed of only supporters. In fact, BID opponents were explicitly told they couldn’t have a seat at the table, as we reported in the June 1 Alexandria Times, “BID process draws local leaders’ ire.” Proponents underestimated the antipathy affected business owners felt toward a new property tax, which would have funded the BID, and erred by not producing a convincing list of BID deliverables. It’s no wonder opponents outnumbered supporters by a roughly three-to-one margin.

Our position at the Times has been consistent from the start: we are not opposed to BIDs per se, but think they should never be enacted without the clear support of impacted businesses.

Those who fought the BID initiative should not gloat because many of the concerns raised by proponents are real.

Retailers of all kinds are increasingly harmed by customers shopping online rather than patronizing their stores. And Old Town does face increased competition from revitalization efforts elsewhere, including The Wharf D.C. and the U Street corridor.

Though most city leaders don’t want to hear it, another factor harming business in Old Town is the lack of accessible parking on and around lower King Street. This parking dearth is driving many would-be visitors to other destinations – and is only getting worse as the city continues to approve parking reductions for hotels and restaurants.

Throughout the process, two items were consistently cited by proponents as goals for a prospective BID: hanging flowerpots to beautify King Street and the waterfront and better, coordinated events. Rather than hire a BID director – with a $250,000 salary, staff of six and a $2 millionWe applaud the decision by City Manager Mark Jinks to drop consideration of a business improvement district for Old Town. The announcement, made at the end of city council’s Tuesday night legislative session, was both surprising and inevitable.

How could it be both?

The move was surprising because, while there is grassroots opposition to many city initiatives, that disapproval almost never succeeds in blocking government action.

Once an idea is presented, such as the current proposed parking reduction for redevelopment projects, the relevant committee or task force is predictably filled with people who support the initiative. Thus, the outcome is essentially pre-ordained before the process even begins.

This time, though, outrage by the affected carried the day.

That’s because the BID initiative was doomed from conceptualization as it was attempted in a top-down manner.

Business improvement districts are by definition by businesses and for businesses. They really can’t be effective if imposed.

In contrast, this BID exploratory committee was formed at the directive of the city manager, was led by a city-funded entity – the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership – and was composed of only supporters. In fact, BID opponents were explicitly told they couldn’t have a seat at the table, as we reported in the June 1 Alexandria Times, “BID process draws local leaders’ ire.”

Proponents underestimated the antipathy affected business owners felt toward a new property tax, which would have funded the BID, and erred by not producing a convincing list of BID deliverables. It’s no wonder opponents outnumbered supporters by a roughly three-to-one margin.

Our position at the Times has been consistent from the start: we are not opposed to BIDs per se, but think they should never be enacted without the clear support of impacted businesses.

Those who fought the BID initiative should not gloat because many of the concerns raised by proponents are real.

Retailers of all kinds are increasingly harmed by customers shopping online rather than patronizing their stores. And Old Town does face increased competition from revitalization efforts elsewhere, including The Wharf D.C. and the U Street corridor.

Though most city leaders don’t want to hear it, another factor harming business in Old Town is the lack of accessible parking on and around lower King Street. This parking dearth is driving many would-be visitors to other destinations – and is only getting worse as the city continues to approve parking reductions for hotels and restaurants.

Throughout the process, two items were consistently cited by proponents as goals for a prospective BID: hanging flowerpots to beautify King Street and the waterfront and better, coordinated events. Rather than hire a BID director – with a $250,000 salary, staff of six and a $2 million annual budget – why don’t proponents find a way to more cost effectively accomplish those goals?

AEDP or Visit Alexandria could contract with an outside vendor to coordinate and publicize additional events near the waterfront. The vendor could likely be paid out of event proceeds, making the initiative cost-neutral. And if 15, 50 or 100 businesses want flowerpots, what’s to stop them from hiring someone to hang and maintain them?

Because $2 million would buy a lot of flowers – and small business owners know better than anyone that when your profit margin is slight, every dollar matters.
 

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