A Sucking Sound?

A Sucking Sound?

Candidates Sound off on the Business Improvement District.

Many people in Alexandria fear a giant sucking sound on King Street. As retailers in Arlington and Washington continue to draw business away from Alexandria, City Hall has been increasingly concerned with promoting local commerce. One controversial way to accomplish this objective is the creation of a special-service district where businesses would pay extra taxes and receive extra services — a proposal that the next City Council may have to accept or reject in the near future.

Last year, a steering committee was formed to explore the possibility of creating a Business Improvement District — known locally as “BID.” The proposal added one penny to the tax rate of properties along King Street from the Metro station to the river, as well as the properties one block to the north and south of the corridor. Advocates of the plan said that the add-on tax would be able to generate about $1 million that could be used for a number of purposes: pressure washing bricks on the sidewalks, creating a specific marketing plan for the businesses, coordinate parking management, improving the landscape design and adding street furniture.

“To me, the BID was about economic development,” said Boyd Walker, who was on the steering committee. “There was never any follow through to the King Street Retail Strategy, and the BID would have implemented the strategy.”

The steering committee’s proposal was withdrawn in December, but Walker says that a new proposal could emerge after the election. The possibility of a future proposal is already facing fierce opposition. The National Taxpayers Union — a group that led the opposition last year — is prepared to lead the charge against any future proposals to create a Business Improvement District.

“This is not a tax that’s wanted or needed,” said Sam Batkins, deputy press secretary to the National Taxpayers Union, whose office is in the corridor that would be taxed by the proposal. “This is a way for developers to get money from the city.”

<b>REPUBLICAN CANDIDATES</b> are taking a variety of positions on the proposal to create a special-services district. Some were sympathetic to the idea while others opposed it as a needless effort to raise taxes. Townsend Van Fleet said that he agrees with the concept, but opposes how the steering committee went about building support.

“Anything to make King Street better is a good idea, and I think the BID is a good idea — but they didn’t do it right,” said Van Fleet. “They should have talked to every single merchant. If you’re going to tax people, you have to ask them first.”

Ken Foran said that the philosophy behind the Business Improvement District was fundamentally flawed. He said that it would alienate the rest of the city, and he disagreed with the idea of the city using its tax authority to raise dedicated funding for a nonprofit organization.

“I feel the same way about a special-services district that I do about drug-free school zones — what happens when you leave the district?” Foran asked. “Besides, if you have only five parking spaces, how can you coordinate?”

Bernie Schultz disagreed with the idea of creating an area that would be favored for city services. He said that he is concerned about the perception of favoritism.

“I think it would alienate the rest of the city,” Schultz said. “We need to market the whole city.”

Craig Miller describes the city government as “not very business friendly,” adding that the existing services are not adequate. He said that adding a new tax wouldn’t be a good idea because City Hall should focus on providing services that local business already expect.

“If I was on the City Council, I’d vote against it,” Miller said. “These businesses on King Street don’t feel that they are getting enough services as it is. The city needs to do more for these businesses now, and that’s not happening.”

Pat Troy was totally opposed to the idea under any circumstances. As a member of the board of governors for the Alexandria Visitors and Convention Association, Troy says that the existing marketing campaign has been successful and that adding to the tax rate was the wrong strategy to improve the King Street corridor.

“The government should be able to pay for these services,” said Troy, who operates a restaurant in the proposed district. “I would not want this kind of a thing for one little area to be a priority.”

<b>DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES</b> are generally supportive of the concept, although most of them questioned the way that the steering committee went about designing its proposal last year. Timothy Lovain — the only nonincumbent Democrat on the ticket for the May 2 election — said that he agreed with the theory of the special-service district, but was concerned about its execution.

“BIDs have been used elsewhere to good effect,” Lovain said. “But we’ve got a lot of nonprofits in Alexandria, and the BID was designed mainly for retail. I think it’s a good idea to explore because we’ve got a problem being competitive in the region.”

Councilman Andrew Macdonald said that the proposal was withdrawn because it lacked support on the City Council and in the community.

“The BID group was well meaning, but they didn’t do their homework. They didn’t go and talk to the people and find out what the problems are,” Macdonald said. “The city needs to be more involved with data collection. If we clearly define what the problem is, it will be easier to solve it.”

Councilman Rob Krupicka said that he supported the concept of creating a district, although he would like to see a proposal that addressed the needs of businesses that would be burdened with the extra taxes.

“BIDs have been proven successful in other jurisdictions,” Krupicka said. “But last year’s proposal did not reflect the priorities of the businesses in the district.”

Councilman Ludwig Gaines agreed that last year’s BID proposal was fatally flawed because its leaders failed to build support in advance of the proposal.

“There are obvious merits to the idea because we are losing business to Arlington and Fairfax County,” Gaines said. “But there just wasn’t consensus last year. To do something like this, you’ve got to have massive buy in. And that didn’t exist.”

Councilman Paul Smedberg said that a special-service district might be one way for the city to encourage economic development. During the day, Smedberg works in a special-service district in downtown Washington, and he said that he’s seen a noticeable difference in cleanliness and traffic control in the area. But he said that the proposal last year wasn’t clearly explained.

“It was a pretty big step right out of the box, and people weren’t clear how the BID would fit into economic development on King Street,” Smedberg said. “I think that the idea is sound, but we would need a different model that is based on small businesses.”

Vice Mayor Del Pepper said that she agreed in theory with the idea of creating a Business Improvement District, but was concerned about the lack of support.

“I think it’s got a lot of potential, but you’ve got to have buy in from a huge majority,” Pepper said. “I think that the concept is a good one.”

Regional special-services districts include the Georgetown Partnership BID, the Downtown BID in Washington and the Golden Triangle BID in the DuPont Circle area.