The Overlook with Matt Peiken

PART 2: None of Your BIDness | Critics of a Proposed Downtown Business Improvement District

May 01, 2024 Matt Peiken Episode 154
PART 2: None of Your BIDness | Critics of a Proposed Downtown Business Improvement District
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
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The Overlook with Matt Peiken
PART 2: None of Your BIDness | Critics of a Proposed Downtown Business Improvement District
May 01, 2024 Episode 154
Matt Peiken

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

Talks of establishing a business improvement district in downtown Asheville stretch back to the 1980s. But over the past year, those talks have gained a lot of momentum, and some civic leaders are lobbying city council to approve it before the start of the next fiscal year.

A chorus of critics are also reaching a crescendo with their opposition, pushing back against what they see as vague details, a lack of accountability and oversight and a process they say has been anything but thorough and inclusive.

Today is the second half of a two-part conversation. My guests are Rebecca Hecht, owner of Shining Rock Goods; Susan Griffin, a 20-year downtown resident who co-chaired a previous effort to pass a BID; Karen Ramshaw of Public Interest Projects and Patrick Conant, founder of Sunshine Labs, a relatively new Asheville organization pushing for greater accountability and transparency in local government.

Over the course of this conversation, we dissect some of the details, or lack thereof, of the proposed BID, including the subjective discretion of people hired to patrol the streets on behalf of the BID. We also talk about the potential economic impacts for residential renters and small business, the proposed power structure of the BID’s governing board and criticisms of a process led by the Chamber of Commerce and Asheville Downtown Association.


Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Show Notes Transcript

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

Talks of establishing a business improvement district in downtown Asheville stretch back to the 1980s. But over the past year, those talks have gained a lot of momentum, and some civic leaders are lobbying city council to approve it before the start of the next fiscal year.

A chorus of critics are also reaching a crescendo with their opposition, pushing back against what they see as vague details, a lack of accountability and oversight and a process they say has been anything but thorough and inclusive.

Today is the second half of a two-part conversation. My guests are Rebecca Hecht, owner of Shining Rock Goods; Susan Griffin, a 20-year downtown resident who co-chaired a previous effort to pass a BID; Karen Ramshaw of Public Interest Projects and Patrick Conant, founder of Sunshine Labs, a relatively new Asheville organization pushing for greater accountability and transparency in local government.

Over the course of this conversation, we dissect some of the details, or lack thereof, of the proposed BID, including the subjective discretion of people hired to patrol the streets on behalf of the BID. We also talk about the potential economic impacts for residential renters and small business, the proposed power structure of the BID’s governing board and criticisms of a process led by the Chamber of Commerce and Asheville Downtown Association.


Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Matt Peiken: One of the things I want to talk about is the board, the suggested membership with this board. I wanted to see if any of you had thoughts on this. There's a proposed 14 member board.

Three of the members would come from major commercial property owners. Those with combined taxable value over 4 million, two large commercial property owners. Two small commercial property owners, two residents who own a dwelling within the district. One resident tenant. Of the 14, there'd be one residential tenant who rents from within the district.

One retail tenant, one food and beverage tenant, one office tenant, one at large. It seems to me that this is a very top heavy board. Am I reading this wrong? 

Susan Griffin: I think it is a little. I do know they've come up over the weekend with a new plan to look at. They're adding a member.

They're taking a TDA representative off of it. The board is the hardest part of this. By time we were finished with council last time with the negotiations, I think we had about 25 members on the board. Totally unworkable. But at least people had a voice.

I think the thing that scares me more than the makeup of this board is the fact that we don't know who the initial board is going to be. We don't have faces. We don't have names. Who is going to be entrusted with carrying this forward if they do pass it?

And we don't know that. 

Matt Peiken: Also, it seems to me that once this passes, The city council really doesn't have oversight except for at the five year mark for sort of an analysis. Am I reading that wrong? 

Patrick Conant: No, you're reading that correctly. 

Matt Peiken: Okay. Talk more to that, Patrick.

Patrick Conant: What I would say is, one of my biggest concerns about this proposal for the downtown BID is the governance structure. For one, nine of the 15 now proposed seats would go to property owners, even though we all know that tenants in downtown residences and commercial spaces are shouldering those costs as well.

Matt Peiken: Just to be clear on that, so that the owners would pass down the cost that they get that they inherit because of this, that they're signing onto for this. They would pass that down to their renters, their tenants. 

Patrick Conant: Yes, that's correct. But one of the biggest things I've learned since I've lived in Asheville now for 17 years is sometimes we need to make adjustments to plans we created years ago.

And if you look at the proposed process to create the initial BID board and to handle vacancies on the board the current proposal specifies that the BID board itself will control the nomination process, they'll submit those nominees to City Council and City Council can either rubber stamp them, say, that sounds good, or they can ask the BID board, give us alternative nominees.

It's highly unusual to me to see the city create a board that completely disempowers council and indirectly the people of Asheville from any control of who sits on that board. 

Matt Peiken: And we don't know yet this from what I understand in my interview with Zach and Hayden and Dana Frankel from the city that it would be a nonprofit entity would be created to manage this to run this or would it be an existing nonprofit, but it hasn't been named, has it? 

Susan Griffin: No, although I heard on your podcast that the ADA and Chamber plan to put in a bid to run it jointly. You do need a 501c something to have as a formation for the BID. Many BIDs have an advisory board, which forms the 501 

Matt Peiken: C4, whatever 

Susan Griffin: that, yeah organization. And then they hire a BID director and that BID director essentially manages.

Matt Peiken: I do understand that this proposal, it would pay for, if this were passed, it would pay for the creation of 13 full time employees, or at least that's how the money that would come in for it would be able to pay for 13 FTEs that I saw. 

But we don't know yet who would be in charge of any of this. And so it seems that city council is being asked to pass something very quickly and that this would be passed in June and that it would go into effect with the new fiscal year's July one of this year.

I'm seeing people wave their hands in alarm shaking their heads. What do you want to see happen at this point? Karen? 

Karen Ramshaw: I want this one to not go through right now. There's this huge rush to get this done before July 1st. So that, you talked about, people said, Oh council doesn't have power, whatever.

But Rebecca, Susan, and I are being asked to pay to an, an organization. We don't know who's going to run it. Run by a group of people, we also don't know who they are. It's going to last for a minimum of 10 years. We don't have any detail about the program and city council decides that they're going to vote yes on this, we don't have a say in any of that. And then this group of people that we don't know anything about are going to make decisions that impact the area of town that we have invested in and cared about. And I just don't know how much we can do. 

Matt Peiken: Before we go to others. I want to be clear here that also this push would be before properties are reassessed and that everybody expects that the property values would go up in this reassessment.

And that since the BID is funded as a percentage of assessed value, that everybody's cost will go up. Who knows how much is a big question mark of what the effect of that is. Patrick, you wanted to say something? 

Patrick Conant: So I just wanted to say that it does feel like this process is being rushed at the last minute now to get the BID in place by July 1st.

And I will just note the staff report that goes along with the public hearing happening later today indicates that staff are suggesting the council create the BID, impose the tax rate, but leave the governance structure discussions to a later point. And I just feel that should be alarming to anyone with a stake in our downtown because the governance details are critically important to how this BID will operate, how it will evolve over time.

So if we can't figure out a good governance structure that works for everyone upfront, then I think we need to take time to get that right. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, Rebecca. 

Rebecca Hecht: And this is supposed to be a self imposed tax. Yeah, I would like to know, as a self imposed tax, what I'm paying, who I'm paying, who's managing it, how it's going to work.

Matt Peiken: One of the things, when we talk about taxing, the state legislature really hamstrings cities and counties in terms of what taxes they can enact, that we struggle in some ways as a city because we are very limited by what we can do.

I've heard North Carolina called a mother may I state, but the BID is almost a loophole into this, that the city and county can't Assess new taxes, but through a BID cities and counties can Assess new taxes. I don't know why that loophole exists I'd want to talk to it this somebody in the state legislature as to why. 

Susan Griffin: There is a great article. Online from the uh, UNC School of Government. And basically explains how BIDs can be formed. And cities have a huge ability to form a BID with virtually no input. All they need to do is create the boundaries and impose the tax.

And as long as the services are defined as above and beyond what baseline services are, they don't even need to have an advisory board with this. 

Rebecca Hecht: Can I say something just yeah, please 

Matt Peiken: Rebecca, yeah 

Rebecca Hecht: I feel like a lot of times as a business owner, we're almost profit neutral because taxes go up, living wage has gone up 2 an hour, again parking's going up, water rates are going up, all of this and so even though as you're seeing more people downtown, more tourists, more spending, we're still just staying neutral because all of our expenses keep going up cost of goods, wages, It's all of those things and so you're 

Matt Peiken: saying I just want to be clear So your point being even though there's more business downtown, that the cost of doing business keeps going up So your revenue is not going up and yet you're being asked to this BID to shoulder the cost of this, correct?

Rebecca Hecht: Yes, that's what I'm saying. Yeah, it looks from the outside, like everybody's busy and everybody's making a bunch of money and all these businesses should be just great and lining their pockets, but honestly, things keep costing more and when things keep costing more, your profits actually don't go up. They stay just steady. 

Matt Peiken: I want to ask each of you, we've already started answering this. What do you want to see happen at this point, Susan? 

Susan Griffin: I think the council needs to say no, not now. I think this needs to go back to the drawing board to get more people involved.

It needs to be way more transparent. And it needs to offer services that are actually needed and responsive to what's going on downtown. To all of downtown, not just a small number of people here. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, Rebecca, what do you want to see happen at this point?

Rebecca Hecht: I would also like to see us pump the brakes and get it right before we just rush into it because I think there Could be value in a BID that's done properly. But right now that's not the process that's happening 

Matt Peiken: So you said there could be value in a BID. Are any of the four of you blanketly opposed to a BID? None of you just out of hand are opposed to a BID. It's more of the process and the what's in the details 

Susan Griffin: Exactly. There's no voice of downtown, really. I know the downtown association said it's the voice of downtown if you're a member. The chamber is not the voice of downtown. DARN is not the voice of downtown.

There really is no way For downtown constituents to get their voice heard and yet so much as Karen was saying, so much is put upon us by the city and so much rest on our shoulders, but we don't really have any way to form together to say, look, maybe this is the way we feel about it.

And a BID done well can be that voice when everyone is represented. If nothing else, a BID knows who its constituents are. A BID can get in touch with all its constituents and let them know this is what's happening. Let's get together. Let's talk about this. Let's see what people think need to be done.

Matt Peiken: Susan, you're talking about a sense of a collective voice, which isn't happening, at least from your vantage point.

There is a public hearing tonight. Are any of you showing up to the hearing to speak to the things, Rebecca you're raising your hand, Susan, Patrick, Karen's iffy on that, but three of you plan to be there.

Rebecca Hecht: Yeah, if I can, it's at four o'clock. I have a business that's open till five. I have a child I have to pick up at four from the chamber to take them home from the bus and then get them to Kung Fu at six.

I don't know anyone who has a business or a child or a job who can make a public hearing at four o'clock and it's changed venues to the Civic Center. 

Susan Griffin: I got a lovely shiny placard postcard from the BID steering committee announcing the March 28th. I think it was a presentation to council. I received it on April 4th. 

Patrick Conant: Yeah, I would say, it's hard to hear from everyone through any process. But one of Sunshine Lab's primary concerns in our open letter is the need for more public input on this process. Some people can make tonight's public hearing.

Some people will not be able to make it. But as currently proposed by City Council, this is the one and only chance to weigh in on this process. There will be two readings and votes in May and in June. But I've actually reached out to council and staff and said will you will allow additional public input at these hearings.

And they said, no, we will not. This public hearing is the only opportunity. 

Matt Peiken: Oh, okay. So is there anything we haven't talked about or talked about enough that I might have interrupted you and what you were saying? Anything you wanna add to this conversation that we haven't talked about yet? 

Patrick Conant: I I have some concerns that the Chamber and Downtown Association have indicated their desire to submit a joint response to the RFP the city would issue.

Both the Chamber and the Downtown Association are member driven organizations. They aren't necessarily accountable to everyone downtown. 

Matt Peiken: They're not even accountable to some of their members. Like I was at the lowest tier of chamber membership and I felt like I, The things I was asking for were ignored.

Patrick Conant: Yeah. And I would just say, I have some concerns if we're collecting public tax dollars, allocating it to some nonprofit, maybe the chamber and ADA, or maybe a new nonprofit, it creates transparency concerns from my perspective when we start to allocate tax funds in that manner. I think the Tourism Development Authority and Explore Asheville is an example of a similar relationship.

We have public tax dollars going to a non profit. In general, they will follow open meetings laws, public records laws, but in some cases, they don't. My team at Sunshine Request has submitted public records requests for salaries of people that work for Explore Asheville and they've pushed back on that.

So I wonder that if the BID is structured in a similar way, will the public retain full access to information in meetings? 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, Karen. 

Karen Ramshaw: I don't understand why we can't create a 501c4 that comes from the downtown. The folks that you had, Dana Frankel and Zach and Hayden, not a one of them is going to be paying this tax.

And I just don't understand why, because the way it's been set up, they've been working together, they set everything up. And I just feel if this is supposed to be something buy and for downtown, it needs to be completely centered in downtown.

Matt Peiken: What do you mean completely centered? 

Karen Ramshaw: By that I mean, whoever's on the non nonprofit needs to be. 

Matt Peiken: They need to have a stake in it in that way. 

Karen Ramshaw: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that my hope for a well developed BID is that it would serve to give us a more comprehensive organization so that we can find better ways to collaborate and that we can work harder to make sure that our neighbors are involved and heard because I think one of the issues for a lot of the little businesses downtown is they are still exhausted from covid.

They got zero love from the city during that time. And rushing this through when water went up, as you said, parking went up, taxes are going up, the bond's going to go through, it just feels like one more blow that they're really struggling to 

Susan Griffin: withstand. 

It's a little like saying right now that counsel's saying, we're going to float a bond issue, it's going to be good, don't worry, just trust us. And that's where I feel we are right now with this. It is such an unfinished plan. And so many questions that should be answered, need to be answered. 

Matt Peiken: What strikes me, about this is this has been talked about for 30 plus, almost 40 years, and it's still vague in all its details. You would think all these things, all these concerns would have come up and that would have been addressed in previous efforts, whether it's 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that, okay, we heard them then, it's not less of a concern now. Let's make sure we don't make that mistake.

I don't know that any of you can answer this, but why are we dealing with such a vague, open ended Plan so many years and decades after this was brought up. 

Karen Ramshaw: And the other thing is, we do have a tendency in this community to recreate the wheel. We had, how many years was it working on the BID before? Why didn't we start from there? Instead of hiring a consultant from somewhere else to come and tell us what we needed when we had a huge group of people that spent years of their lives Trying to figure out what this community wanted and what this community needed.

Matt Peiken: I guess part of that comes from just turnover and people wanting to see their thumbprint on a plan. We have different leadership in the city. We have new businesses, new members of the chamber, new members of the ADA, and it's a different organization, a different time. And I imagine the process of making BIDs happen now is more streamlined.

There are probably lobbyists and others who work in this effort that maybe didn't exist before. And perhaps this plan was shaped by a plan that happened in another city that was passed through. I don't know. That's just conjecture. 

Susan Griffin: I think it's interesting after spending $200,000 or whatever the rest of the chamber's asking to be repaid, the report that Puma came up with is remarkably similar to the report that the 2013 BID committee had produced for free. 

Matt Peiken: Who's Puma? 

Susan Griffin: That's the consultants.  

Patrick Conant: I don't know what it stands for—something urban management. 

Matt Peiken: Something predatorial.

Susan Griffin: But literally we worked on this I think the downtown master plan was approved in 2009. 

Rebecca Hecht: And who knows where that's gone. 

Susan Griffin: Strategy 7 was create a bid. Council appointed I think a pretty good group of people it was very broadly represented with the charge of implementing a BID. That was our job.

It wasn't to find out about BIDs, although we had to do that. It was to implement a BID. And when it got to the finish line, they approved the BID, but wouldn't approve the funding. 

Matt Peiken: Patrick, you want to say something? 

Patrick Conant: Yeah, I would just say the lack of continuity between the previous efforts and where we are today is definitely concerning. It's an all too common pattern we've seen in Asheville. But I feel that there's a perception or a narrative that the chamber did this feasibility study, They came up with a plan and we've just got to push it forward now. And I don't think that's a model that has ever been successful in Asheville or Buncombe county. So I think it's entirely reasonable to say, we have a proposal on the table, And that's different than going to a round table or filling out a survey in general about what a BID could do.

We now have a proposal on the table. And it definitely would be to the benefit of our city and to downtown in general to take the time to get it right. 

Matt Peiken: I guess there's the people who are pushing this. I would imagine they're saying if we delay, it's going to be at least a year until this happens, which, okay, that may not be a bad thing, but some people think, hey, we've got problems that need to be addressed.

And this means we're going to go at least another year without these problems being addressed. I can understand that mindset. 

Karen Ramshaw: Yeah. And I think that was one of the reasons that the chamber took this on is because they were hearing from members who were downtown and there is this feeling that we have to do something.

Matt Peiken: Oh, not only that, there's this feeling. I remember when soon after I launched this podcast, the chamber was behind a big lunch hour, it was almost a performance in a sense in front of City council members, other civic leaders, the police chief and others were there and it was people in local business.

Do you remember this Rebecca? People in downtown businesses were asked to come and talk about their experiences, their harrowing experiences dealing with vagrancy, street elements whether they were personally approached, accosted in any way. This was back last April, I think.

Rebecca Hecht: I remember this now. And guess what? They invited like hoteliers and breweries. None of us smaller business owners were asked and it was like sign up and like you couldn't attend it. And we found out last minute and nobody from the smaller businesses was informed or invited or able to get in. 

Matt Peiken: That's really interesting because I do remember a lot of these anecdotes that were coming about were after hours and things that were happening at 12 31 in the morning 1 30 in the morning. Not that that diminishes that at all, but it was a certain specific slice of the downtown workforce and not necessarily representative of what happens at four o'clock or noon so anyway we've talked so much thank you all for your insights I really appreciate thank you so much.

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