A BID by the government, for the government

A BID by the government, for the government
File Photo

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:

Alexandria city officials decide they want to implement an initiative. The people most impacted in the city oppose the proposal. The city often pays thousands of dollars to consultants to promote the initiative and create an air of more widespread support than actually exists. City Council passes the initiative. Why do they do it?

The punchline is, sadly, “Because they can.”

This happened with the elimination of single-family zoning protections in Zoning for Housing. Versions of it played out with the Seminary Road road diet and installing lights at then-T.C. Williams High School.

No, we’re not across the finish line yet with the BID, but the city is using every tool in its toolbox to cram this through. And that’s really the problem. Business improvement districts are supposed to be from the ground up, implemented because businesses think it will help them attract more customers. This effort is being engineered from the top down. It’s being led by the city, paid consultants and a small group of business owners.

The Project for Public Spaces defines a BID thusly:

“Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are organizations formed by private property owners and businesses within a legally constituted city district,” at pps.org.

Conversely, Alexandria’s attempt at a BID is being led by the city. It’s not an actual BID in the traditional sense. Anyone who thinks this is coming from the ground up is sorely mistaken. One of the members of the proposed BID board made this abundantly clear in an email to the Times last week:

“The State of Virginia does not require any sort of voting or polling of those in proposed BIDs to create a BID. City Council can, at any time, create a BID anywhere in the City. They are the only ones who have to vote on it.”

That’s not true of the section of Virginia Code that deals with actual business improvement and recruitment districts. The process governing them is found in 15.2-2413.14 of Virginia Code, and the implementation language states:

“Upon the submission to the clerk of a locality of a written petition, signed by a majority of the business owners in the proposed business improvement and recruitment district who will pay more than 50 percent of the fees proposed to be charged, a locality may initiate proceedings to form a business improvement and recruitment district.”

City Council’s decision on May 28 to not count votes from businesses that don’t respond to the petition would clearly violate this section of Virginia code. Council changed the way votes will be counted because not enough business owners have voted “yes” to get the proposal across the city’s self-determined 60% threshold.

However, Alexandria is using the part of state code that governs service districts, which can be implemented for a variety of reasons. This part of Virginia code, section 15.2-2403, titled “Powers of Service Districts,” is a rambling mish-mash. The section of 15.2-2400 directly pertaining to BIDs is much clearer – and restrictive.

Other indicators of who is driving this initiative:

• A June 2023 Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Times revealed that the City of Alexandria signed a $100,000 contract with Municap for “Urban Planning Consulting – Consultation, Administrative, and Support Services to the City for the Old Town Business Improvement District (BID)”

• A senior city staffer told the Times as the 2017 BID was being considered that the then-city manager was eager to be able to have standardized, brown newspaper boxes placed throughout Old Town.

When the goalposts are moved enough times, the ball eventually goes through. This ball, regardless of where it lands, is tainted.