The idea of creating a business improvement district in a commercial neighborhood that is a city’s economic engine seems like a no-brainer. After all, merchants and landowners have created about 2,500 BIDS since 1970, with 10 in Washington, D.C. and six BIDs or similar alliances in Arlington County.
But in Alexandria, a two-year-old effort to form an Old Town BID has triggered one of the small city’s epic civic battles, complete with storefront posters, dueling web sites and heated accusations of secretive planning and intentional misinformation.
The proposal will get a public hearing at Saturday’s Alexandria City Council meeting, with a deciding vote coming either that day or Tuesday evening.
Proponents say their aim is to organize Old Town’s 2,100 businesses and 700 commercial property owners into a unified voice, improve services, such as street cleaning and lighting, and boost special events, in hopes of attracting more customers and businesses.
A BID is “essential,” supporters say, to help Old Town compete with other shopping and dining districts in the region, and to deal with city budget pressures and pending sewer reconstruction that will affect portions of the neighborhood.
“Old Town is losing its cachet as a fun, lively place,” Tom Osborne, owner of several residential and commercial properties, told a group of about 70 residents earlier this month as pro- and anti-BID panels debated the idea. “There’s no other practical way of doing what needs to be done.”
Opponents strongly disagree, charging that small businesses which make up the majority of tenants along King and Washington Streets would be outvoted on the BID by big property owners, since votes are parceled out based partly on property value.
They say the BID, which would operate with fees collected from all businesses and commercial property owners within its boundaries, is nothing but an attempt to find a new revenue source for maintenance and operation of the city’s redeveloping Potomac River waterfront — costs that were supposed to be covered by the hotels, stores and residences being built there.
Old Town’s politically active residents’ association is strongly against the concept, because residents who don’t own or operate businesses in the district will have no voice in BID operations, and were shut out of planning meetings as well. An earlier proposal to address those concerns by creating a “community” improvement district went nowhere.
Stephanie Landrum, chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, which supports the BID, said the debate has become “the worst game of telephone, because you have people who have formed a negative opinion, as is their right, but they are now evangelizing to others with incorrect information.”
Under the proposed BID structure, each business would get a single vote on who to elect to the orrganization’s board. But commercial property owners can get additional votes, based on the value of their property. The City Council would have to formally approve any proposal endorsed by the BID’s board.
Tax assessments to support the BID would be capped at 10 cents per $100 of assessed property value of the buildings where businesses are located, and would also have to be approved by the council.
Opponents say that cost, in addition to the recently increased property tax rate and sewer fees, could be the breaking point for some small businesses. They have a petition with more than 150 signatures of local businesses and property owners to support them.
Critics of the BID proposal say there’s no proof that such an organization would stem vacancies, provide parking or address the continued erosion of shoppers who opt for Internet searches over brick sidewalks and historic storefronts.
Kim Putens, owner of the clothing store Bloomers, said BIDs work best in “bombed-out downtowns” that need a serious restart — not Old Town, where there has always been a shifting set of stores and owners.
But others say a BID could provided a much-needed jump start.
Victoria Vergason, owner of a barware store called The Hour, said foot traffic on upper King Street has dropped significantly, hurting the small storefronts that residents and visitors say they value. She said she’s constantly approached by property owners who want her to move to booming areas of Washington.
“There’s no doubt that without a BID, many more stores will shut down and others will move out of town,” she said. “A BID is just another tool that lets us compete.”