I often ghostwrite editorials to promote various community notables and organizations. This piece was created for Long Beach’s BID leaders.
Taking Back the Neighborhood
Redefining Empowerment with Business and Community Improvement Districts
As business owners and residents, we’re all familiar with the economic downturn, budget cutbacks, the struggling housing market, the frustration of blindly sending away hard-earned tax dollars without proof of how they’re spent. However, many of us are also finding solidarity and motivation in tough times — learning to do more with less and rolling up our sleeves to get things done in the communities in which we work and live. This new definition of empowerment is best personified in the Business and Community Improvement Districts — more than 1,200 now — that are emerging across the country and making measurable differences in their areas.
Safety, cleanliness, physical improvements, economic stimulus — these are all tangible ways in which a community’s pride and prosperity are measured. But when funding for improvements isn’t available, or when district members’ commitment to bettering the area has begun to wane, communities need to become their own ally, harness their own power.
Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Community Improvement Districts (CIDs, or Property-Based Improvement Districts, PBIDs) are effective tools for financing improvements that enhance the business climate and property values, beyond what the city government is obligated or able to provide.
Improvement Districts have the ability to revitalize deteriorating areas, reduce crime and homelessness, promote “clean and safe” programs, strengthen relationships with city officials and law enforcement, promote positive media coverage, and much more.
Projects might include street cleanup, graffiti removal, landscaping, transportation initiatives, upgraded street furniture, recycling or green initiatives, decorative banners, marketing brochures, monthly newsletters, welcoming new businesses to the area, visitor maps, historic tours, holiday décor, marketing special events … the possibilities go on and on.
“These are not the splashy things, they are the nuts and bolts of keeping an area vibrant and functional,” said Cecilia Estolano, cofounder of ELP Advisors LLC, which works with cities, agencies, stakeholders, foundations and business groups to craft strategies to grow thriving, healthy, vibrant communities.
Progress is cyclical — a safe, well-maintained area attracts consumers and, in turn, welcomes new businesses with a loyal clientele that invests back into the neighborhood. As a result, members of the community feel a growing responsibility to maintain improvements and continue the upward trend.
Downtown Los Angeles is one such example. The area, which as recently as a few years ago was actively avoided by residents, consumers and visitors because of crime, homelessness and general disrepair, has been seeing an influx of new businesses, hotels, students, residents and attractions. Advocacy from the BIDs has successfully helped reduce crime and blight and aided in transportation and parking issues.
LAPD Commander Andrew Smith, who oversaw the department’s Central Division downtown for several years, told the LA Times that the BIDs and CIDs act as a “force multiplier for our officers. There is no doubt in my mind that our success in reducing crime downtown was due in large part to our partnership with the [improvement districts].”
Naturally, change doesn’t come free — creating a BID or CID requires the monetary commitment of the majority of businesses or property owners holding at least 75 percent of the assessed property value of the area, from a couple hundred dollars up to thousands per year. But, as we have seen firsthand in Long Beach’s East Anaheim Street Business Alliance, once that dedication to the broader community is established, the group is able to refine its goals, learn to manage its own funds, and budget according to its specific priorities.
In East Long Beach, where the East Anaheim Street Business Alliance, EASBA, is one of the youngest successful BIDs in the Greater Los Angeles area, we have often focused on street cleanup — trash removal and tree trimming, actions that sound simple but are the basics of building an attractive, prosperous community. Later, we recognized a need to promote the district’s shopping and dining and unique cultural diversity, whereas the area had always been one to simply pass through. In 2011, EASBA members and local officials celebrated the hanging of light pole banners that tout the district’s new “Stop, Shop & Dine” slogan. More recently, EASBA contracted a local historian to dig into the area’s fascinating 100-year backstory, which helped our members appreciate how history has translated to our modern-day business climate.
As a result, we’ve had a packed house for our recent monthly meetings, but more important, businesses are approaching EASBA in hopes of moving into the area.
In other neighborhoods, I have observed various improvement measures at work, from cleaning up unauthorized dumping sites to dozens of young people safely enjoying a community skate park at the end of the school day.
Another wonderful example was detailed by the Los Angeles BID Consortium “State of Los Angeles’ Business Improvement Districts” report. The Downtown Industrial BID began receiving calls from its members that homeless people were leaving behind their belongings in front of their businesses, thus disrupting their ability to operate. Working with homeless advocates, the LAPD and the City Attorney’s office, the BID developed the concept of a storage depot for personal belongings of the homeless. A BID board member donated a 20,000-square-foot warehouse where individuals could check in their belongings and leave them in secure storage for a renewable period of seven days. This innovative solution dramatically decreased the problem of blocked commercial doorways, decreased visual blight in the business district, and respected the rights of the homeless in the area.
There are also many who believe BIDs — organizing the local resources already in our communities — are the solution to the closure of redevelopment agencies. Beyond beautification of the neighborhood, “It’s astounding the amount of jobs created, the amount of tax revenue, decreases in crime, vacancy rates declining,” Karen Chapple, Associate Director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC-Berkeley, has said. “I think we’ve really underestimated these small-scale types of tools.”
Every community and neighborhood faces challenges, even when the economy is thriving. The advantage of a Business or Community Improvement District is that business owners and residents can take back the power. Physical improvements do create emotional bonds. Pride in community is not lost. BIDs and CIDs have proven to unite people and help them define and refine their goals for their neighborhoods and businesses by mirroring the very principle upon which our government was built: “For the people, by the people.”
At the most basic level, BIDs and CIDs figure out how to do more with less. At their most effective, they inspire the pride and camaraderie that creates change and economic growth.