Revisiting Business Improvement Districts: Asheville's BID Evolution - TribPapers

Revisiting Business Improvement Districts: Asheville’s BID Evolution

The City of Asheville intends to increase the tax rate in this district 10 cents per hundred dollar valuation. Funds would be used to promote safety and cleanliness. Screenshot.

Asheville – When the concept of business improvement districts (BIDs) was new, critics viewed them as emblems of failed government. New Main Street taxing districts were created to raise revenue for public services that municipal governments weren’t providing. These often included some form of cleanliness initiative and crime deterrence. In other words, they took over the most basic responsibilities entrusted to government. Progressive government had since moved past these lackluster roles and assumed responsibilities for, for example, regulating architectural aesthetics, restricting who can live or sojourn where and where which trees should be planted, creating community identities, and hosting roundtables to figure out how to control the economy. These districts were unpopular enough to keep changing their names. They’ve been called BIAs, BRZs, CIDs, SSAs, and SIDs.

They were not exactly met with open arms when they came to Asheville 15 years ago. A lot of groundwork had been undertaken before citizens were invited to a public forum. Back then, public forums were criticized for various techniques of trying to trick participants into believing they had participated in developing foregone conclusions. This time, citizens went to the Civic Center to provide input only to find that allowed “input” consisted in answering loaded questions on butcher paper easeled throughout the room. There was no weighing of pros and cons.

A number of activists who appeared to be working independently were wise to this Green Eggs and Ham dysphoria. They were not asked if they wanted a BID, but how they wanted it. “Would you like it in a house? Would you like it with a mouse?” Soon, one participant started going around writing, essentially, “I would not like it here or there. I would not like it anywhere.” The outside-the-box responses started gaining up to five ticks of approval. But then somebody put synonymous statements on the butcher paper to divide the votes, and the facilitator apparently didn’t have the mind to lump the opposition into a single category while tallying.

For whatever reasons, the BID can got kicked down the road to regroup. Now, with high crime rates, a sanitation crisis, and patrons telling proprietors they’re uncomfortable stepping over people living in the street, BID discussions are ba-ack. This time, with legislative approval, the BID would be a taxing district. Focusing on cleanliness, safety, and maintenance, the BID would start with an annual budget of $1.25 million, which translates to a district-wide property tax increase of about $0.10 per $100 of assessed value. The BID would be managed and administered by a nonprofit organization and led by an appointed board, both to be approved by city council.

Following an update to city council, Councilwoman Roney read impassioned, prepared remarks. She likened downtown Asheville to a heart that is sick because the body is sick. She said she has been scouting around downtown after the bars close to catch a slice of what service workers have to endure. She raised three points she said she had been hearing from constituents, and she was sure her peers would hear them sooner or later: 1. She wanted support from the business community for city council’s efforts lobbying the General Assembly for less money from the tourism tax to go toward advertising and more to help the city address “the needs that our tourism industry sees that we have.” 2. The city is talking about floating bonds, which will need to be paid off; a property tax revaluation is already in the works; and now the city wants to impose a BID tax on downtown properties. This, she said, disproportionately affects renters, who are disproportionately unlikely to have representation in stakeholder input. 3. She was concerned that the city was struggling to provide core services, namely, safety, hospitality, and cleanliness. One reason was that it had too many priorities above paying living, competitive wages for public safety, public works, and sanitation workers.

“We have serious overlapping crises of behavioral health, substance use poisoning, overdose, and homelessness. We know these are outcomes of a lack of access to housing and healthcare,” said Roney. Community paramedics had the training to deal with these social issues, but the city was not working with the county to expand the program. BID hospitality ambassadors “are not the right people with the right tools and training for the crises that I just named.” Without a modification to the proposed program, she said the city was setting ambassadors, city staff, tourists, and “vulnerable neighbors” up for failure while marginalizing more people with the tax trifecta.