I want to raise our taxes

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June 18, 2002 // UPDATED 1:25 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Sam Grabarski
Sam Grabarski

Downtown could be perfect if businesspeople got more for paying more

My job today is to talk you out of your common sense. You won't lower any more ladders before jumping into a pit. You'll forget that wise people don't make the same mistake twice. If you fear perfection because it could be dull, you'll soon crave it. Even if you can't stand the heat, you'll join me in the kitchen.

Let's volunteer to pay higher taxes to the City of Minneapolis, for things we should be getting already, and be glad to do it, because Downtown could be perfect if we did.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Downtown has one Special Services District, the Nicollet Mall, where businesspeople do pay higher taxes to make things more perfect. The trouble is, too many of those assessed have stopped believing they get what they pay for -- and storm clouds are gathering over next year's budget. As a result, no one wants to make the same mistake twice by enlarging the Special Services District, even if it could make Downtown perfect.

Minnesota always does things its own way, so we don't use the standard Business Improvement District name here. We also don't like to let our business associations form independent corporations to run these districts. Instead, we trust cities to run them. In Minneapolis, that exposes us to red tape, multi-year delays for approved projects, surprise interdepartmental billings and public works crews. The Minnesota Way has produced about 65 service-improvement districts statewide, whereas the Borough of Manhattan may have that many BIDs alone.

In fact, there are over 1,200 Business Improvement Districts now operating in the U.S. and Canada. Forming them isn't easy, because people argue for months about what the city isn't giving them for their taxes. Eventually a referendum is passed and a corporation is formed to purchase equipment, hire employees, issue contracts, set goals and maintain standards. Most BIDs require a periodic referendum to determine if they should continue. Minnesota appears to create eternal districts, though there are legal ways to pull the plug.

Major corporations move to large suburban campuses when they give up on city services. They build and maintain spotless buildings with manicured grounds. These self-contained environments don't fit into urban centers, so the alternative to "corporate flight" is to breath life into commercial dead zones by forming "common area maintenance" projects. Clean and safe are the first goals of Business Improvement District.

In an average district, maintenance goes well beyond local government services, including frequent sweeping, power washing, trash and debris removal, and immediate graffiti removal from all buildings and public areas. BIDs provide extra security, ranging from conventional security patrols to uniformed ambassadors who have extensive training to help visiting consumers. BIDs provide marketing programs to improve the overall district image, often supplying promotional events that unite a district in ways more expected from shopping malls.

BIDs conduct special events to reinforce the district's drawing power. BIDs manage and expand the parking supply, often conducting validation programs, managing garages or running free shuttles. BIDs often do market analysis, develop databases, assemble public and private financing packages for redevelopment projects and invite trophy tenants with incentives. BIDs sometimes contract human service agencies to address homelessness issues. BIDs pay for such capital improvements as streetlights, benches, kiosks, litter receptacles and public art. Sometimes, they can bond for ambitious public/private capital improvement programs.

BIDs come in all sizes and budgets. Sacramento's BID spans 65 square blocks, involving 250 property owners and 550 merchants. Philadelphia's BID has annual operating funds in excess of $7 million, about seven times Nicollet Mall's budget. New York, Baltimore, Houston and Portland have nationally famous perception-of-safety programs, including sanctioning courts for nuisance crimes. Denver's BID spends $2 million annually on a transit mall, consumer and investor marketing programs, a vacancy reduction program and, soon, managing downtown parks. Winnipeg's BID created multiple storefront locations for police teams. Hampton, Virginia's BID focuses on riverfront development.

What would Downtown be like if it were one large service district? Would the streets be too clean, the trees too numerous and the panhandlers too few? It has been said that any government big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away. We might like to get all we want just long enough to know what we're missing, regardless of who pays for it.

Sam Grabarski is president and chief executive officer of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of business leaders.