In Focus: City, business leaders debate downtown group's funding

December 06, 2006 12:00 am

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

Joyce Christian and Elli Kimbauer opened their clinical psychology office in the Redwood Plaza on 3rd Street two years ago.

They enjoy the easy-to-reach, downtown location and don't mind caring for the communal outside areas.

"I'll walk around and pull a few weeds and pick up trash and I wonder, gosh, is there anyone maintaining that?" Kimbauer said.

Christian heard of the city's business improvement district when she got a business license for Synergistic Services, but has never received a bill.

And while the businesswomen would pay to participate in the group's projects to bolster the downtown area, they also want to know what the group does.

"I'd like to see a monthly report of some sort," Christian said. "I'd like an accounting of that so we know what the money's going for."

Business improvement districts aim to boost downtown economies through projects such as installing or repairing benches, planters, trash cans, street lights, roads, sidewalks and decorations.

The Crescent City organization automatically includes downtown businesses, mostly on 3rd, H and I streets. Members of The Daily Triplicate take part in the organization.

The group formed in 1993 by a city law that calls for it to grow into a nonprofit and manage its affairs from fees that city staff collect.

The law lacks details, though, on those collections.

"The enforcement measures were not really spelled out properly," said city manager Eli Naffah. "Apparently, it has become an issue."

Crescent City officials and business leaders want to clarify the group's rules. They plan a Tuesday meeting at 1 p.m. in the H Street Edward Jones office.

The group operates now as a de-facto voluntary organization because of a lack of penalties for businesses that fail to pay annual fees. Those vary, depending on the types of business — $500 for larger stores, $175 for restaurants, $400 for financial organizations and $100 for service businesses, for instance.

In 2006, the city sent bills to 30 businesses totaling nearly $2,200 and collected about $1,660 from 21 business owners, said city finance director Edwin Erickson.

The district hosts about 60 eligible businesses.

Using city staff and resources to collect fees and enforce penalties, though, could wind up costing more than the approximately $4,000 that the business improvement district could bring in each year, Erickson said.

"It's quite costly to administer for what you get out of it," he said, noting city workers' other priorities, such as a $25 million proposal to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant. "It just doesn't seem to be working that well."

Erickson wants to see the group morph into a nonprofit, operate its own fee collections, stretch its boundaries to include more businesses and let them join voluntarily.

Billie Kaye Gavin-Tygart, who has owned Six Degrees of Celebration for two years, joined the group as a board member earlier this year. She wants to see the city revise fee collection rules that were never set up correctly, then enforce them.

"The city just needs to make it happen," said Gavin-Tygart, a Crescent City native who recalls a much busier downtown.

More money would let the group expand its projects. Those include planting flowers and trees in barrels, helping to run annual Sea Cruise and July 4 activities, hosting a holiday parade and tree lighting.

"Getting a new tree, that was a huge BID operation," Gavin-Tygart said.

But not all downtown business owners want to join.

"I'm not sure what they really do," said Deborah Cain, who has run her Pele Winds shop in the building at the corner of 3rd and I streets for 11 years. "I've never really been given an explanation."

She noted her own community involvement, including school donations and marketing.

"I pay a state tax and everything else — rent, insurance," Cain said. "I've done a lot to improve this area."