By Brianne McConnell | firstname.lastname@example.org
First in a series
For the second time in six years, a business improvement district is being considered in Old Town.
Many of the same players have staked out familiar-sounding positions, though there are also new voices. Some are arguing that the additional tax on business owners that a BID would impose would provide funds to better market King Street, while others contend that small businesses on upper King Street are being asked to subsidize larger, wealthier establishments near the waterfront.
Both positions seem to have significant support, and it’s unclear whether BID supporters will be able to generate the required 60% support of businesses within the proposed boundaries by the May 31 deadline.
How we got here
This is not the first effort of its kind, as prior efforts to establish an Old Town BID failed in 2005 and 2017. When the most recent BID initiative came before City Council in June 2017, several council members said that public feed- back was running about three-to-one in opposition.
Because of that pushback, Council approved a memorandum directing then-City Manager Mark Jinks to bring a revamped BID proposal forward in the fall with revised boundaries – the 2017 proposal included several residential streets in addition to King Street – along with a specific list of services and a framework budget.
But in September 2017, Jinks announced that the effort was being abandoned, saying BID initiatives need to be business-led rather than government-initiated and that the BID exploratory committee members didn’t have the time needed to develop a new proposal.
Jinks’ explanation was hotly refuted by exploratory committee member Victoria Vergason, who owns The Hour.
“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,” Vergason said in 2017. “Let the city manager and City Council take the blame for their own failures to act.”
The current BID effort differs from the 2017 version in one important respect: It consists of only King Street rather than several adjacent mostly residential streets north and south of Old Town’s main road.
The newest proposal calls for creating a 13-to-15-mem- ber board made up of business owners and property owners within the defined district. One to two city appointees would also join the organization.
Two additional non-voting members appointed by Visit Alexandria and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership plus two members representing residents within or near the district would round out the governing body.
Paid staff would also be part of the plan to create direct liaisons for the business community and city officials.
According to a petition for the OTBISDI, currently a parcel of land with a taxable value of $700,000 receives a tax bill of $7,770 in annual property taxes. Under the increase proposed in the new BID, that tax bill would rise to $8,470. This would be an increase of $700, or 9%.
Some properties, such as churches or residential buildings used strictly for housing, would be exempt.
The case for a BID
Old Town business owner Amy Rutherford said improved marketing is why she supports the current BID initiative.
“We felt like there was a huge hole where people were not marketing businesses regionally … the new mission is to do more of that,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford is a board member for the Old Town Business Improvement Service District Initiative. She opened Red Barn Mercantile in 2007 and her second store, Penny Post, launched in 2017. Both businesses are located on upper King Street.
Rutherford and her fellow board members are spearheading the latest push to establish a business improvement district in Old Town.
Supporters of the initiative say the revenue generated by the tax increase would be used for marketing, branding, event programming and overall improvements to the business environment.
“After having lived through a pandemic and having our businesses close … like never before had it been more apparent to me that we need an organization like this,” Rutherford added. “This is small business owners running this organization. So, it is for us and by us.”
The OTBISDI currently manages partnerships with more than 20 events such as the Cookie Crawl and the Walkable Warehouse Sale.
Backers of the OTBISDI say those events will stay and they will work to create four signature events a year like a Christmas market or a spring flower festival. Their goal is to draw more people to these events and ultimately into the doors of businesses.
According to Rutherford, many surrounding areas have already established business improvement districts and she fears Old Town will start to lose out on customers if it does not follow suit. “We can’t fall behind and I‘m afraid that we will if we don’t make this happen,” Rutherford said.
The case against BID
Six years ago, business owners raised concerns that a BID would create additional bureaucracy and cost. Those same arguments are being raised again today.
Wayne Fisher, owner of Wayne Fisher’s American Design, opposed the effort in 2017 and continues to oppose it now.
“They have failed to convince me I would get anything out of this,” Fisher said. He doesn’t see how his niche business of four decades, which is only open six days a month, would reap any benefits from paying an additional $1,200 in taxes.
“I’m the littlest of the little guys. I deal in a specific commodity to a specific client. They aren’t going to buy from me three times a day, but they will eat and drink three times a day,” Fisher said.
Opponents argue that a strategic marketing plan or proposal from the OTBISDI is not going to add more than what other groups already do to run large events in the city.
According to longtime resident Boyd Walker, the increase in taxes that would come with a BID does not hold water.
“To a large extent they’re not proposing doing anything more than what they already do,” Walker said.
Walker contends that those in favor of the new BID had been working behind the scenes for six months to develop a proposal, but the first public meeting about the plan was announced with only two days’ notice.
“Basically the only notice people got was an article in ALXnow on Feb. 13 [that] announced they were having public meetings – the first one on Feb. 15, the day after Valentine’s Day,” Walker said. “I spent a couple of hours on Valentine’s Day going down and talking to people to see if they knew about it and talk about the meetings.”
Walker said an anti-BID website that was developed in 2017 by Old Town resident and business owner Robert Ray called “bidno.org” has been updated for the new battle.
Walker said he is meeting with members of City Council, five of whom are new to Council since the 2017 BID initiative, to explain why he and others oppose the new proposal. His message is:
“There were two days’ notice before the first meeting. It’s being thrust upon us. We don’t want it. We didn’t ask for it.”
Last year the City of Alexandria put basic guidelines into place allowing businesses to create a petition to start a business improvement district.
According to those guidelines, the proposal needed signatures from 60% of the property owners within the district. Organizers say they have nearly two-thirds of the required signatures that are needed by the end of May.
“I look at the numbers and it’s daunting, but in my heart, I believe the people in Alexandria know they need it,” Rutherford said.
According to Walker, the rules have been changed since the proposal was announced two months ago.
“They’ve changed the date, moved the date back, to move the goalposts down the field. To give themselves more time to get to the number they want to get to,” Walker said.
If supporters do get the required votes needed by the end of May, the proposal will head to City Council for consideration this summer.
Opponents say the proposal would cause more harm than good.
“My main concern is that Alexandria will lose some of its character and more of its small businesses if we tax them more,” Walker added.
Rutherford said she knows there is an added cost, but she is also concerned there will ultimately be a larger cost for all the businesses in Old Town if nothing changes.
“I love Alexandria and I see its potential,” Rutherford said.