Summer is in full swing, and the foot traffic around town is increasing. People flock to Charleston to enjoy the food, shopping, sites, and feeling of being downtown. This is true for residents and visitors alike. However, if you pay close attention, the City’s main attraction isn’t very attractive. The bluestone sidewalks of King Street are less pristine. Trash lingers on the sidewalks. Clusters of people hold up movements. And the peddling that takes place in this core sector can improve.
When I worked for the City of Charleston as the Director of Business Services, the creation of a Business Improvement District (BID) was one of many items that was talked about for a while but never gained traction. A BID is a defined area in which businesses pay an additional assessment in order to fund joint activities within the district’s boundaries. Primarily funded by the businesses, BIDs can also draw on other public and private funding streams.
These districts typically fund services that are perceived by some businesses as being inadequately performed by the City with its existing tax revenues. In cities, BIDs are responsible for cleaning streets, providing security, making capital improvements, construction of pedestrian and streetscape enhancements, and marketing the area. BIDs do not replace city services, but they supplement them in a way that makes improvements noticeable and constant.
In Charleston, limited budgets prevent an already-hard-working City staff from sustaining cleaning, maintenance, and other services of downtown. Additionally, we could use the added benefits of placemaking spaces and wayfinding signs. A BID could also fund customer service ambassadors or even outreach efforts to benefit employment opportunities and community services.
After much discussion and more to come, I hope the Central Business Improvement Commission, the Charleston Downtown Alliance and ultimately City Council will address the need of a BID rather than sticking with what is clearly not working just because it’s comfortable. Many cities have well-established BIDs, and when done right, they transform how an area looks and operates. Such an addition would have a positive effect on residents, visitors, business owners, and City staff and resources. In addition to upgrading King Street and surrounding commercial areas, a BID could eventually enable the current level of services to extend to side streets and neighborhoods that are receiving little to no attention.
As the City grows, and as long as tourism remains a main economic driver for us, the management and operations of our various commercial corridors must adjust smartly. This is a good problem to have, and a BID is the right solution.
Our residents and business owners deserve such critical attention, and our visitors expect everything they have read about Charleston to be true when they visit. If Columbia, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Nashville, New Orleans and countless other amazing vibrant downtown cities can have successful BIDs, so can we.
While not final yet, I’m glad the climate has changed for people to be comfortable having constructive conversations about a BID being created. As visitors return, and locals come out to enjoy everything Charleston offers, let’s welcome them back with a city that is continually looking to make their experience better.
Clay Middleton was City of Charleston’s director of Business Services 2017-2019.
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