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Fight over Adams Morgan nonprofit splits business community

Critics say the Business Improvement District has benefitted insiders, while supporters say the organization has helped the overall neighborhood.

Some business and property owners in Adams Morgan have asked D.C. officials to abolish the neighborhood’s business improvement district (BID) unless significant reforms are made, alleging that the taxpayer-funded organization has been governed poorly and mostly for the benefit of a few. The internal feud spilled into public view as the Adams Morgan Partnership applied for another five-year recertification from the city's Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD). This file photo was taken on 18th Street, in the heart of Adams Morgan's entertainment strip, in 2017. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Songbyrd paid $24,000 a year in BID taxes. Her business partner said, and tax records show, the business paid a portion of the $4,945 in BID taxes levied against the property in 2019. The story also incorrectly said Linda Roth was the former treasurer. She is the current treasurer.

Some Adams Morgan business owners have asked D.C. officials to abolish the neighborhood’s business improvement district (BID), alleging that the taxpayer-funded organization has been governed poorly and mostly for the benefit of a few.

Their complaints have stirred an internal feud within the Adams Morgan Partnership that became public when the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) received sharply conflicting testimony last month over whether to recertify the organization.

The acrimony also reflects larger tensions in Adams Morgan as development projects, including the construction of new apartment buildings and the 2017 opening of the $165 million LINE DC hotel, reshape one of the city’s grittier food and entertainment venues.

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Critics said the Adams Morgan Partnership’s leadership has become insular and out of touch in its governance of the small nonprofit, whose revenue is generated by an additional tax on 217 commercial properties in the district.

“If I had known what it was going to be like, I would never have started a business in Adams Morgan,” said Alisha Edmonson, co-owner of Songbyrd, a music venue and cafe. “It’s a lot of money to be paying into an organization that not only doesn’t support you, but almost goes against you.”

Songbyrd, which leases its space, paid a portion of the $4,945 in BID taxes levied against the property in 2019, according to tax records and her business partner, Joe Lapan.

Others alleged that the partnership operates with too much administrative overhead and too little accountability, citing its abolishment of the board’s term limits soon after inception in 2005.

“It’s like this little cabal,” said Bill Duggan, who owns Madam’s Organ nightclub and other properties in the neighborhood.

Supporters of the Adams Morgan Partnership say its critics have stoked division in an attempt to eliminate the BID or exclude their commercial properties because they dislike paying its supplemental tax.

“They twist the facts to inflame other members of the business community who are not as familiar with the real facts and budget,” Arianne Bennett, a board member who owns Amsterdam Falafelshop, said at the June hearing.

D.C. has 11 business improvement districts in which a majority of business and commercial property owners in a particular area agree to pay additional taxes for supplemental services. They are scattered around the city, including Downtown, Georgetown, Anacostia, and the area from the White House to Dupont Circle known as the Golden Triangle.

The Adams Morgan Partnership, created in August 2005, collects an additional 19 cents per $100 assessed of value from commercial properties inside the district to pay for supplemental trash collection, security and marketing.

Kristen Barden, the partnership’s executive director, said BID taxes range from $100,000 levied on the LINE hotel to $382.84 paid by Jubilee Jobs, a nonprofit employment agency. The average is $3,178.

The organization received more than $848,000 in revenue in fiscal 2020, including a $138,000 litter control grant, she said. It also received more than $45,000 from a covid-related federal loan. The BID’s budget includes her $125,000 salary, as well as $74,520 for a deputy director and $47,250 for an outside security supervisor who — until last year’s pandemic shutdowns — coordinated with off-duty D.C. police officers patrolling the area.

“Our board is very conscientious about what they’re spending on everything,” Barden said.

But opponents say the Adams Morgan Partnership’s leadership has become concentrated in a few hands and increasingly autocratic. They accused the Adams Morgan Partnership’s leadership of trying to stifle dissent or remove opponents on the board and its 14 voting members through a recently adopted code of conduct that, among other things, requires board members to “speak with one voice.”

“This mandate is an absurdity, but it speaks volumes about how this board thinks and acts — or rather, often doesn’t think,” said Jeffrey Schonberger , owner of Alturas Real Estate Interests. Schonberger, a member of the BID’s board since 2005, has become one of its chief critics.

Constantine Stavropoulos, who has served as its president over its 16-year existence, said the organization rescued Adams Morgan from “mayhem” that plagued the neighborhood before the BID’s creation. Stavropoulos said board meetings have always been open to the public, and its members observe federal tax law, the D.C. code and bylaws.

“We can’t take action unless the entire board votes to take action,” said Stavropoulos, whose Tryst Trading Co. operates the Tryst coffee house and theDiner. “It’s impossible for any one business to get an advantage because everything is transparent, everything is voted on.”

Stavropoulos said term limits were eliminated soon after the BID’s creation because it was difficult to recruit new board members.

“Believe me, I would love to have other people step in,” he said.

In annual reports, the Adams Morgan Partnership said its coordination with District police and its use of off-duty city police officers — whose pay is subsidized 65 percent by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) — have reduced property and violent crimes by 30 and 56 percent, respectively, over a recent four-year period.

The BID has also sponsored outdoor movie nights and PorchFest, a music festival using local bands scattered around the neighborhood. The 2018 annual report says the partnership also put itself through a “brand refresh” that involved redesigning its website and hanging colorful banners on street lamps, including one with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face framed by images from Madam’s Organ’s iconic mural.

“Over the years, I have seen the neighborhood without the BID, and I’ve seen the neighborhood with the BID,” said Jim Ball, who opened L’Enfant Cafe & Bar nearly 20 years ago and serves as the BID board’s secretary. “Simply put, the neighborhood is better with the BID.”

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Yet critics said the BID has devoted most of its resources to programs that benefit a two-block strip of 18th Street nightspots, several of whose owners are among the partnership’s leadership, while neglecting daytime retail and other areas such as Columbia Road. They said PorchFest has been fun, but also has done less for their bottom line than Adams Morgan Day, which they say the partnership has grudgingly supported with little more than a $500 contribution — a complaint that Barden disputed.

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“It’s just a tax without benefits, as far as I can tell,” said Charlie McCormick, who has operated the City Bikes shop for nearly 34 years and lives in the neighborhood. For him, the last straw was what he described as the BID’s slow response to addressing drug-dealing and other public nuisances in Unity Park.

“Only after we were threatening to dissolve the BID did any of these issues get looked at,” McCormick said.

Barden said the park’s troubles were directly related to the pandemic, as the number of vulnerable people congregating there increased after the BID furloughed its safety ambassador, some members of its sanitation crew and its security officer. The BID later convened a meeting last summer to address community concerns, brought back the safety ambassador in the fall and spent $1,300 to install a security camera nearby.

McCormick and others said they were also troubled by the partnership’s high administrative expenses and what they said were ways the BID has tried to obscure those costs, such as listing some salaries under “program costs” on financial statements. Stavropoulos said in some cases, compensation fit the definition of a program cost and that all of the BID’s financial statements have been reviewed by an auditor.

Matt Wexler, an investor in the LINE hotel and a former board member, questioned, with others, why the BID’s leadership spurned an offer of free office space at the LINE and decided to pay more than $17,400 a year to lease space owned by BID treasurer Linda Roth.

Roth, in an interview, said the board investigated the offer but found the LINE’s proffered space impractical. Instead, the BID accepted her offer to sign a lease at the same price the partnership had been paying previously, Roth said. She said she also recused herself from deliberations on the matter.

But some said the BID resists transparency on even the most routine matters.

“I sometimes would have to email saying, ‘Can I please see the meeting minutes?’ And I would get a question of, ‘Why? — as if I had to justify why I had to see meeting minutes,” Edmonson said. She said speaking up got her nowhere.

“Nonprofits should be something that help the community, and I fully believe when the BID was created that was the intent,” she said. “However, at some point, something went very wrong with the BID, and it doesn’t represent the neighborhood. It certainly doesn’t feel like it represents the businesses.”

Kristi C. Whitfield, director of the District’s Department of Small and Local Business Development who presided over the June 21 public hearing, acknowledged the unusually intense debate over the BID’s recertification and said her agency will review the entire record before reaching a decision.