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Downtown in the Hands of Property Owners

John VanLandingham has been involved with Flagstaff’s downtown for nearly two decades. The co-owner of the Old Town Shops was active during the special improvement district (SID) of the 1990s. That effort, which was paid for by a tax of property owners in the area, is credited for revitalizing downtown, helping the transformation that created a popular destination for locals and visitors.

But VanLandingham worries the vibrant city hub could deteriorate without proper management.

“We invite people into our community and it’s important that we provide the best experience that we can when they are here. I don’t feel as a downtown community that we’re managing that experience very well.” While VanLandingham appreciates what he describes as the “Mayberry feeling” of downtown, he also gets a close up look at the downsides, shortcomings that could be addressed with a formal management plan.

VanLandingham’s short wish list is also a tall order: maintenance, marketing, and parking solutions. “I’ve been through three parking studies. We quantify the problem, come up with solutions and they never get implemented.” Many downtown merchants point to a lack of parking as the area’s biggest determent.

Enter the Business Improvement District, or BID. Like the SID, it would be paid for through assessments of downtown property owners. In addition, a board of directors would be appointed to oversee the group’s efforts, deciding the best ways to manage the area. A full-time executive director would also be selected. Creation of a BID would need approval of more than half of the downtown property owners as well as the City Council. The district would be autonomous, with the director answering to the board.

If approved, Flagstaff would be the first municipality to create a BID under Arizona Senate Bill 1203, signed into law in April. It describes the parameters of a district, including instructions on dissolution, if the district board decides to call it quits.

The BID legalese is something Steve Saville has been studying these past months. As the City of Flagstaff’s manager of enhanced districts, Saville is meeting with individual property owners and touting the benefits of a special district.

“They [the property owners] would set the priorities and fix the priorities,” said Saville. “If they want to buy Heritage Square, build a parking garage or a municipal center, they decide how to do that.” Capital projects would not need voter approval, Saville added, and the city could use its bonding ability to finance the projects.

Under one scenario, downtown property owners would pay $0.25 per square foot, contributing toward a $250,000 operating budget. Saville said the outcome would be increased property values. The city and the county, which have offices in the area, would be exempt.

He compares it to management of a mall. “When you go in and lease that property, you have common marketing, common security. You also have parking lot maintenance and common area maintenance (CAMS),” said Saville.

Because he has been studying successful BIDs in other cities and sees the potential for Flagstaff, Saville is enthusiastic about this concept. But it can be a challenge to describe the virtues to some business owners who may already have opinions on a district. And when people are already agitated by disagreements over management of activities, the issues can be convoluted. (Some businesses think Movies on the Square and First Friday Artwalk should be held on noncompeting nights. Others are concerned about the lack of formal management for the 200 special events held on Heritage Square each year.) Saville believes all these issues and others, like parking, could be solved by creation of a district. He sees potential for the district to generate significant revenues that could then be used for enhancing Flagstaff’s downtown.

Mike Souris is undecided on the topic, but is leaning against it. He is a partner in several downtown area properties and is not a fan of adding what he calls another level of bureaucracy. “Right now, business owners, tenants and landlords are all struggling. They have no extra money. And the last thing we need is another level of bureaucracy to add to the cost,” said Souris. He says property owners will pass the fees along to their tenants who will have to decide if they want to pay the additional fees or move to another part of town.

And Souris says if the biggest concern is parking, the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County need to play a more active role. One possibility could be a public private garage, but Souris believes taxpayers should not have to pay for the structure.

These discussions have been ongoing in downtown circles. Coconino County’s Facilities Director Sue Brown says a long-term master plan adopted in 2008 identifies downtown parking as a primary concern. The recession has slowed momentum but Brown says the county is poised to act if the right opportunity presents itself. With 320 county downtown employees and a lack of parking spaces, she agrees they need to be part of the solution.

In the future, some county offices may be moved to facilities in other parts of the city, while many will remain downtown. “The county’s priority is to keep justice services (the courts, pretrial probation and county attorney’s offices) downtown to make it easier on the customer.” Brown adds the county wants to be a good neighbor, possibly participating in a public private parking garage or building one for themselves.

As these discussions continue, downtown property owners will weigh the pros and cons of forming a BID.

Dave Stilley, who was born and raised in Flagstaff and owns property in the potential BID area, is still formulating his opinion, but is likely in favor of creating a district. “If we have the means to do improvements downtown, that is going to make downtown a more desirable place. It is going to attract customers and businesses,” Stilley said. “That is good for property values.”

But Stilley concedes that it is unclear whether property owners would be willing to contribute funds to a district during these difficult economic times.

As an idea, though, he is in favor of continuing to enhance the city’s hub. “Downtown is our historical, cultural, emotional center, and so I think that whatever we do to promote that, not just from a business standpoint but from a personal standpoint as well, is good for the community and everybody who lives here.” FBN

 

 

 

 

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