After months of debate in public meetings and inside stores across Old Town, discussion of the new proposed Old Town Business Improvement District (BID) has finally reached the City Council. Dueling panels of support and opposition to the BID made their pitches to the council on June 6 in the Oswald Durant Center.
“I was supportive of this process moving forward. I don’t know what to believe anymore.” — Councilman Paul Smedberg
The Old Town BID would be a new tax, 10 cents per $100 of assessed value, on businesses located on or around King Street and Washington Street with the promise of helping revitalize local retail. Discussion centered around the specifics of the proposed Old Town BID, but at the end of the day members of the council said the decision is going to come down to whether or not Old Town businesses believe they are better off being bound together or kept independent.
“Is there merit to the idea of this kind of collectivism or not?” asked Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “If in the end the opposition is to the idea of collectivism in the form of a BID … that is the threshold question the City Council is going to have to work through. If there is no merit ... then we kill this right now. If there is… we move forward.”
After the first discussion between the council and panels, no answer is clear. Stephanie Landrum, CEO of Alexandria Economic Development, introduced the BID concept to the council, after which local business owners and residents took turns expressing support or opposition. Members of the public were not permitted to speak, which annoyed the crowd.
Supporters of the BID held a unified position: that the council should approve the creation of a service district, the first step towards the creation of a BID. A service district has no power to tax, but would define the boundaries, purpose, and length of time for what would eventually become the BID. Landrum emphasized that a service district can be approved but never be funded by the city to become a BID.
Supporters of the BID say, without it, Alexandria retail will be left behind by other areas in the region currently being revitalized as commercial districts by BIDs. Victoria Vergason pointed to Washington D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront BID and the BID in development at Dupont Circle as growing regional threats to Alexandria’s retail. Tom Osborne, who had opposed BID proposals in the past, was one of the most adamant supporters in the panel.
“I made it clear from outset that I would only support BID if it was done right and if it was necessary,” said Osborne. “Answers to both have satisfied me as yes. Old Town Businesses are struggling … the things about Old Town that attracted my partner and me to move our business here 20 years ago have deteriorated. Old Town has not kept up with changes. I’m in favor of preserving Old Town architecture and culture, but there’s going to be change. Change for better or worse? An Old Town BID makes sure change is for better.”
The opposition to the BID was more divided. Some, like Bloomers owner Kim Putens, said she was not opposed to the idea of a BID but that this proposal had fundamental flaws that needed to be revisited back at the drawing board. Putens said the proposed voting structure, which would give retail owners one vote and property owners one vote per million dollars of assessed value, would allow powerful property owners along the waterfront the influence to drown out retail owners. While some were concerned about the failure of the BID, Old Town Civic Association representative Bert Ely was more concerned about its success. While residents within the BID’s area are not taxed, Ely said that could easily changed by future councils once business realize that residents are also benefiting from services like park activation and streetscape improvements. Ely also worried that a successful BID would bring in more tourists, which in turn would exacerbate Old Town’s parking woes.
Feedback provided by the City Council indicated that they shared many of the same concerns about the BID.
“Earlier I said I was for the BID because it would be easier to work with,” said Councilwoman Redella “Del” Pepper. “I have to say, I’m not so sure now. My emails are saying [people] are not worried about structure or boundaries, which incidentally are truly weird, or who is on the board or how many people are on the board or what issues it’s actually going to solve other than the general statement ‘fill in gap.’ They want to know about the bit in our ordinance about the assessment … what is perceived as a tax in addition to the real estate tax.”
“I was supportive of this process moving forward,” said Councilman Paul Smedberg. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. When I saw initial proposal, I was concerned about the size. This is really five distinct areas … all with different wants and needs. I’m not sure at this point what is the main goal.”
Smedberg said that in all of the discussions surrounding the BID, he had never received a solid answer on what the BID was going to do. Those in favor of the BID argued that the exploratory committee had been designed to leave the specific details of the BID operations to the next phases of the plan, but that defense did not sit well with members of the the opposition.
“You are asking businesses to be investors in this BID situation,” said Putens. “If I went into bank and said I want to do a business, I need to have a plan; an exact plan. There isn’t a plan. It lacks a lot of details. There are no details about how money spent and what we’re doing with it. You are asking us to invest in this organization, and I want to see more details.”
The first stage of the BID process is scheduled for a vote by City Council later in June.