Editor’s note: The new downtown Business Improvement District passed second and third reading at Tuesday night’s Charleston City Council meeting.
Charleston City Council’s initial vote last month in favor of the King Street Business Improvement District (BID) has many business owners and city leaders hopeful for the future of commerce downtown, but some concerns still hover around transparency and other impacts of the district.
King Street has long been the economic lifeblood of downtown Charleston, with hundreds of businesses, many of them locally owned and operated, calling the long corridor home. But in the last few years, many of those business owners have had growing concerns about King Street and their businesses.
From the violent protests on King Street in May 2020 which damaged some storefronts to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which continues to drain local businesses of resources, many owners who have managed to remain in business are still struggling. But recent booms in tourism and commerce as the pandemic waned — before the onset of the omicron variant — gave businesses new life.
“With everything those business owners have gone through, it’s great to see how packed King Street has been for months now,” said new Charleston City Councilman Stephen Bowden. “Nationally, retailers are having the best time in a while, and that’s true for King Street as well. We need to do everything we can to ensure that keeps on rolling.”
In the BID, that means improvements to safety, cleanliness, marketing and more, all with the goal of making the King Street corridor between Line and Broad streets a more desirable place to shop and do business. But of course, that money has to come from somewhere.
“The BID is going to create about $600,000 per year from the properties along King Street between Broad and Line [streets],” said Doug Warner, vice president of media and innovation for Explore Charleston and a representative of the BID. “Then, there’s another $400,000 raised from other government entities or other interested parties that believe supporting and improving the experience on King Street is important.”
Warner is also part of the Charleston Downtown Alliance, a nongovernmental nonprofit named as the city-contracted entity that will manage district affairs.
Money coming from businesses is determined primarily by the size and potential profits for each individual business in the corridor. Of the 467 parcels affected by the BID, 241 will pay less than $500 per year. Six will pay more than $25,000. Businesses are not identified in the proposal or preliminary budgets, but Warner pointed to large hotels and new projects without assessment caps for the higher end of the payment spectrum.
Warner explained that those who contribute money, including each individual business owner, will have a voice in how the money is spent.
“And it may not be all people putting money in, but those that have a vested interest or an expertise that is important,” he said.
As of Jan. 7, Warner said among CDA members, 65% of property owners on the street have agreed to the yearly fee to support the BID, 55% in writing.
“That’s crazy,” Warner said. “Can you imagine, at this time, getting 65% of business owners to agree to an additional annual fee, after having come out of COVID, fighting every day to survive? That really says something.”
But the BID proposal as written has raised flags for some.
“Anything we can do to make King Street an even better and viable commercial corridor is a positive,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie. “But that doesn’t come without concerns — not just from businesses who feel as though they may not be served as well as others, but also larger businesses in the corridor that basically will be paying for most of it.”
Chris “Boston” DiMattia, who owns two bars downtown, one in the proposed district, said affordability is one of his top concerns with the corridor even without the BID proposal.
“This just keeps coming back to the same issues that have now made this area of town completely unaffordable. And now you want to add this district, which is going to tax the business owners more to make it nicer, which is good, but who can afford the rent?” he told the City Paper. “We’re pricing all small businesses out and all you’re going to be left with is corporate [businesses] — but didn’t even The Gap close?”
Others say the proposal does not adequately outline how the funds will be spent, opting instead for broad or vague mentions of safety, cleanliness or beautification.
“The proposed use of taxed funds is not at all for specific capital expenses,” Ben Silver Corporation President Sue Prenner wrote in a Dec. 9 letter to The Post and Courier. “Nor are these funds to be expended by a transparent and accountable government department.” Prenner did not respond to follow-up inquiries from the City Paper.
But Warner said transparency is at the core of the proposal, and that the more broad language is meant to leave wiggle room for ideas that may come up in the future.
“Transparency will clearly be a part of this,” Warner said. “Chris Price, who is the current chair, is talking about having all of the financials accessible to people in the BID at any given time as well as auditing financials at the end of the year … and we could do such a great job at developing the experience that we don’t need ‘X, Y or Z’ anymore, now the need is something different. The CDA would have the ability to shift and change that direction.”
The BID was up for second reading before council Tuesday night. If passed, funding would begin with the new budget year in January 2023.
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