Among the DID Board’s first-year accomplishments was following through on its commitment to ease the burden of special assessments against nonprofits in the district, said Chairman Robert Herr.
The board raised $18,000 through four local foundations to refund nonprofits that qualified for reimbursement.
With the help of city and Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce staff, the board also successfully lobbied to change the state statute governing business improvement districts to allow the city more leeway in how it assesses nonprofits in the district.
The amendments were approved on Dec. 31 by Gov. John Engler and took effect immediately.
Locally, the new legislation gives the DID Board and City Commission the desired flexibility to reduce special assessments to nonprofit organizations that own tax exempt properties in the district.
“We think we got a lot done. We pushed hard and a lot of people both with the city and the chamber worked diligently to get that accomplished,” Herr said. “We felt we had a great year, particularly with our ability to get the state statute changed.”
The City Commission will hold a public hearing tomorrow regarding the necessity of a district-wide special assessment.
The nine-member DID Board, established by the City Commission in August 2000, is responsible for recommending maintenance and beautification services for the downtown business district over and above the standard services the city provides.
A separate entity, the Downtown Alliance, carries out district services and related marketing and communications activities funded through special assessments against property owners in the district.
The Alliance, which is governed by a 24-member board, began providing enhanced services in the downtown area last August.
The DID Board had an interim agreement with the local chamber to provide staff and support services to the Downtown Alliance so it could get up and running quickly, Herr said.
He said the Alliance intends to wean itself from GRACC this spring and incorporate as a separate nonprofit organization.
The DID Board approved a $630,000 budget request on Jan. 22, recommending city commissioners approve continuation of the maintenance program another year.
In addition to covering maintenance, beautification and marketing services, and administrative expenses, the budget earmarks $15,000 for a public inebriate center expected to open soon at Mel Trotter Mission. The budget also includes a $20,000 Downtown Residents Emergency Needs Fund.
The board anticipates special assessments will remain unchanged for most property owners in the district, but in light of the recent changes in Michigan law, is recommending the assessment be reduced for the district’s nonprofits that own tax-exempt property.
The board surveyed the 13 nonprofits last month about the effectiveness of the new services. Nine of the 10 nonprofits that responded indicated the appearance of their area had improved and expressed interest in paying some portion of the assessment.
The board also has surveyed the district’s remaining property owners to get feedback on the types of services they want as well as current level of service, Herr said. The results are expected to be available at the public hearing.
I think people feel that, generally, the services we’re providing are certainly helping their neighborhood,” Herr remarked. “They all liked the idea of the snow removal, which was kind of an added service we were able to provide to them.”
Dennis Sturtevant, chairman of the Downtown Alliance, said a lot of property owners want to see sidewalk snow removal included under the assessment. The Alliance tried it this winter and was able to clear 176 blocks of public sidewalks in the district in two days, he said.
Sturtevant said the Alliance continues to receive positive response regarding litter pick up and sidewalk sweeping. In addition to regular city trash removal, Alliance workers remove about 50 bags of trash weekly, a number that doubles in the summer, he said.
Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, pointed out that Alliance workers, contracted through OneSource, have gone above and beyond the call of duty, taking the initiative, for instance, to shovel paths between parking meters and sidewalks, as well as shoveling snow around fire hydrants and drains.
That’s something they decided to do on their own that we’re really happy with,” she said.