Bittersweet Café closed last July after 33 years of daily operation. I made a necessary business decision, but I did so with a very heavy heart. Foot traffic on King Street has been declining for several years and impacted our sales and profitability. I carried the business for a few years in the hope that things would improve.
Eventually, I saw the writing on the wall and leased the space to a larger organization with deeper resources. I put many long-term employees out of a job and left our many loyal customers without a meeting place. I still hear regularly that Bittersweet’s absence has left a hole in our community. And that is my biggest fear — losing what is unique and special about our business community. We face ever-increasing competition from neighboring cities that are embracing an economic future that includes successful business improvement districts.
Approving the proposed BID service district and electing a board charged with continuing the discussion can give our business community the tools it needs to create a vibrant commercial area. This will attract visitors, shoppers and new businesses eager to participate in a lively, prosperous business community.
Perhaps some of you are as old as me and recall the King Street of the late ‘60s and on into the ‘90s. Old Town was a sea of empty commercial buildings. The founders of Bittersweet were considered pioneers in 1983 when opening a shop on N. Alfred Street due to the perilous nature of the neighborhood. Organizations like the Boutique District have been successful creating a community that promotes Alexandria as a marketable destination of unique small businesses. An Old Town BID can be the next pioneer.
It is unfortunate that so much misinformation regarding the BID has been disseminated to our community. Of course many are livid about the recently adopted property tax increase. The taxes on my commercial building increased 40 percent — over $8,000 annually — due to increased assessment and the new rate. I'm not happy about that but recognize the hard decisions at hand.
An Old Town BID could:
Create a unified voice for the business community that leverages our entrepreneurial skills and represents our diverse community, particularly those that are civically engaged providing leadership in a rapidly changing retail and commercial landscape
Help solve parking issues by directing visitors to available parking garages and lots rather than circling residential neighborhoods — something the Georgetown BID has done successfully. A BID can negotiate with private lot owners to open lots during peak periods — and direct traffic to them.
Provide regular programming in our public spaces like Market Square and the coming Fitzgerald Square that appeals to residents, our office tenants and visitors. This is critically important in light of the impending opening of the Wharf in SW D.C.
Better leverage our existing special events such as First Night, St. Patrick's Day and Scottish Walk & the George Washington birthday parade. The city should be the destination for holiday visitors in the DC Metro area with the parade, a Santa’s chair in Market Square and visitors spending in our retail shops and restaurants.
Negotiate with the city and private landholders to better welcome visitors to our city who arrive by motor coach. Other historic cities like Charleston and Newport actively manage motor coach traffic and parking — there's no reason Old Town shouldn't do the same.
Become a marketable destination as a hot spot for Pop-up retail — a huge trend in the retail industry that helps startups get going and fills dark retail space. A street of active retail space helps all businesses and reflects well on the city — especially to visitors.
Include all stakeholders to participate in our business community through a BID fee for service. Currently it's primarily small businesses that participate in and pay dues to the Chamber, Visit Alexandria, the Boutique District or OTBPA. These organizations provide advocacy and marketing for Old Town and from which all businesses benefit. A service district would include all stakeholders and allow for a fairer equation for small businesses and combined resources that could create powerful results.
Create a negotiating partner for the city on matters of street maintenance and enhancements, setting a baseline of services through an MOU that would create a contract between the city and BID ensuring an unimpeachable level of services by both parties. Currently budget realities indicate a continuing trend of decline in city services.
All these efforts will support small businesses and improve quality of life for residents. But most importantly, a strong and thriving business community generates tax revenue that lessens pressure on property tax rates and makes it easier for subsequent city leaders to make decisions on resource allocation.
One important missing piece of the puzzle is the cost. The BID Exploratory Committee created a proposal based on conversations with area BID executives and businesses operating within BIDs. I put emphasis on the word “proposal.” There is nothing to say a $.10 tax would be agreed to by a democratically elected board. That said, in my building I lease two spaces — 2000 and 900 sq. ft. respectively. My 2016 assessment at a $.10 BID service fee would mean a $49 and $30 per month contribution. I don’t find that onerous given the potential outlined above and the danger if we don’t act.
We must take proactive steps to avoid what’s being referred to as the Retail Apocalypse. Perhaps that term is a bit hyperbolic but let’s be real — the very nature of retail and what people seek in a destination is changing rapidly.
Shall we, as a community meet the challenge or continue to slide into more vacancies and higher taxes?
The author is a member of the BID Exploratory Committee.