| Credit: Photo by Cody Silver on Unsplash

Contrary to recent news coverage, the owners of Sightsee do not hate holiday decorations on King Street. What we do hate is the City of Charleston engaging in performative acts of racial equity and then enacting policies completely to the contrary. The business improvement district (BID) planned for King Street is a prime example. Unfortunately, the swirl of media attention has failed to adequately educate the public about business improvement districts in general, nor the proposed King Street BID specifically, so we are taking it upon ourselves before it is too late.

The concept of a business improvement district has been around since the 1970s — there are hundreds across the United States alone. In simple terms, it’s basically a homeowners association for commercial property.  

To create a BID, all owners of property within the defined district contribute a fee corresponding to property size that funds a separate, nongovernmental entity that will provide additional services on top of what the city already does. Once the city government approves the creation of the BID, the entity overseeing the funds is granted broad leeway in how it operates — typically with little accountability to the city or citizens. 

BID funds go toward activities that contribute to “beautification” and ensuring a “clean and safe” experience for those welcome in the district. To that end, BIDs generally cover the cost of decorating the street for events, ensuring cracks are fixed and paint is refreshed, installing signage, and staffing “ambassadors” who walk the streets answering questions and helping people find their way.  

On the surface, literally and figuratively, these are all positive things. City streets that fall within business improvement districts do tend to reflect better upkeep and curation than those without. (Think of neighborhoods with and without homeowners associations.)

Like HOAs, business improvement districts are also a double-edged sword. Unless a city government and BID leadership take steps to mitigate against the negative repercussions of a BID, the impact can be devastating to the community in and around the district.

Business Improvement Districts nearly without exception cause:

  • Small businesses being replaced by chains
  • Displacement of minority and low-income populations
  • Gentrification and pricing out of locals in the entire surrounding area, not just within the BID itself
  • De facto exclusion of anyone not considered “good for business” from dwelling in the district

This is not a matter of opinion. Countless studies and articles are available to support it, such as:  

The Business Improvement District planned for King Street is especially problematic for the following reasons:

  • The BID board is made up of a mix of wealthy business and property owners who do not reflect the racial or socio-economic diversity of the peninsula
  • Many of the board members are also board/staff of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau — the area’s marketing department — which prioritizes tourists over locals
  • The BID’s $1 million annual budget will be funded only 50% by the businesses and the remaining 50% by an undefined mix of other sources whose interests have not been made transparent 
  • The BID will include a robust “ambassador” program that, as the articles above above show, disproportionately hassle and shoo away minorities and the unhoused to areas where they are out of site of the all important tourists

In order to prevent irreversible negative impact from the King Street Business Improvement District, Charleston City Council needs to demand critical modifications to the current proposal. As a starting point, we strongly recommend at a minimum that the city requires the following stipulations for any BID formation to mitigate against collateral damage:

  1. Reduce the BID budget to the $500,000 per year committed by the property owners and do not allow additional funding from outside sources 
  2. Establish a rent cap for non-property owning businesses whose only location is on King Street and who are not affiliated with a restaurant group for the duration of the BID 
  3. Prohibit the funding of an ambassador program or any other nongovernmental operation charged with “public safety”
  4. Prohibit any board or staff of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau from also serving on the BID board
  5. Revamp the make-up of the BID board to accurately reflect the racial and socio-economic diversity of peninsula residents and local business owners

Charleston City Council is set to vote on the matter today. It is our hope that members will enact policy in keeping with their pageantry. If the BID passes in its current form without significant modification, we’d suggest that the first “beautification” project taken up by the BID is to re-install the Calhoun statue so that we’re all on the same page about whose vision still prevails.

Joel Sadler and Allyson Sutton are the co-owners of Sightsee at 125 1/2 Line St.