The (Undemocratic and Ineffective) Difference is Downtown! [Part 1]

Today, the City of Geneva announced that they will start collecting an added tax from all property owners, and that they would give this additional revenue to a small group of people who own the most property in the City who will then spend this money however they wish and without any oversight or approval by the City.

Just kidding, but can you imagine if this was real? Something so undemocratic, and mindbogglingly unethical would generate anger and pushback from thousands of residents.

Well, the City already does this (on a smaller scale) with the Geneva Business Improvement District (or BID). Downtown property owners whose property lies within the BID boundaries are required to pay an additional tax (or levy) which is used fund the activities of the non-profit BID. The BID’s Board of Directors then decide how to spend that money (over $100,000 per year). The property owners who own the most square footage of property within the district are even awarded additional votes during decisions by the Board of Directors.

The BID can spend these taxpayer dollars without any real oversight or involvement from the City (except for a City representative or two on the Board of Directors). Since 1986, the Geneva Business Improvement has been handed millions of taxpayer dollars to “promote an attractive and economically viable downtown (18.5 acre designated area) that is high quality in appearance and design, safe and attractive to property owners, business people, tenants, shoppers, and visitors,” a goal that, if you ask many longtime Genevans, has only really happened in the last 5-6 years, no thanks to the BID.

bid

City Council has intermittently discussed doing an evaluation of the services and effectiveness of the BID, but evidently, there seems to be very little genuine intention in doing so. Each year, the City continues to award the BID thousands of dollars from the constrained City budget. In 2015, the City handed the BID $25,000 in taxpayer dollars, PLUS an additional $19,500 for downtown detailing (in addition to the $100,000+ dollars in annual fees).

La La La I Can’t Hear You

For years, a large number of downtown business owners have had significant and specific complaints about how the BID is run, and whether or not the BID is hindering the growth of downtown. There are allegations of conflicts of interest, complaints of ineffective (or non-existent) downtown promotion and recruitment practices, and a belief that the BID operates solely to benefit a small number of property owners. Additionally, most of the BID’s critics believe that the City is giving its tacit approval of the organization, continuing to funnel hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into the BID, year after year after year, without any apparent concern about holding the BID accountable or examining their role and practices in any appreciable way.

Although the BID allots a couple of spots for business owners on their Board of Directors, the overwhelming majority of downtown business owners have no voice in how the BID is operated. Many of these business people won’t speak out because they rent from BID board members and are concerned about backlash, and most tend to say nothing because it appears that everything that the BID does is okey-dokey with the powers-that-be.

I’ve had multiple downtown business owners tell me that they don’t know what BID does except water the flowers, hang up holiday lights and sweep the streets, that the BID did nothing to encourage them to locate their business downtown, and that when they’ve called the BID with questions or concerns they’ve been ignored or dismissed.

Geneva BID’s proponents like to credit BID with the recent renaissance taking place in our downtown. I have asked many people, including those in City government, exactly WHAT has the BID done to justify this praise, and it’s usually something about ‘cleaning the streets.’ Even when City Councilors question BID’s effectiveness, they aren’t heard.

Let’s take a look at BID’s role (or lack thereof) in the community and see if they’re worth the investment.

Two Part-time Non-Union DPW Workers and a Truck

The top accomplishment cited by BID supporters is their work done to maintain downtown’s appealing appearance, from sidewalks to planters to tree mulching to trash receptacles and more. The “Two Men And a Truck” program (aside from being having an outdated and gender-insensitive title and being the copyrighted name of the largest franchised moving company in the US) supposedly provides an enormous amount of service at a fraction of the cost of having the work performed by city employees.

While some might find this commendable, others might find the city’s willingness to indirectly enlist low-wage laborers to keep our gem of a downtown clean to be problematic. There is one primary employee for the “Two Men And a Truck” program. He works 35 hours a week, conveniently five hours a week short of being a full-time employee or receiving any full-time benefits. This employee is also African-American, which is both ironic and embarrassing for the City, considering that the city’s workforce on the whole is severely underrepresented by people of color in proportion to the city’s population.

Image by Shan Shanmugam Sgi, - Creative Commons
Image by Shan Shanmugam Sgi, – Creative Commons

While the BIDs use of volunteers and county workforce development workers to help maintain downtown’s appearance might seem frugal, downtown is the economic engine and a critical spot for tourism. Keeping it maintained by a crew of low-wage part-time employees is certainly not a point of pride.

It shows, too. Let’s be realistic. Our downtown sidewalks are speckled with old, dirty pieces of gum and cigarette butts. The flowers are nice, but let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that downtown is spotless or impeccably maintained. Two part-time employees are trying to keep 18.5 acres of city streets and sidewalks clean, and it looks that way.

Failed Events and an Event That Fails Downtown

  • The Finger Lakes Music and Wine Festival was held on the Lakefront in 2011 and 2012. The BID asked for (and received) money (in addition to their usual stipend of $100,000+) from the City both years to help defer the cost of hiring a promoter for the event. This cost the City additional tens of thousands of dollars. The event was poorly organized, poorly advertised, poorly attended, and in the end, became a lesson in how NOT to sponsor an event.

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  • Oktoberfest – In 2011, the inaugural celebration had very poor attendance, which was blamed on the weather. In 2012, the event again was poorly attended, and they blamed concurrent events around the city.

In 2013, Oktoberfest was moved to the same night as Geneva Night Out in hopes that it would boost attendance (although the organizers of Geneva Night Out were never contacted). The event was also moved from October to early September, and for the third year in a row, Oktoberfest was a failure, and obviously hasn’t returned.

  • Cruisin’ Night began in 1999, a very different era in downtown’s history, when the available entertainment consisted primarily of a handful of bars and pizza joints, the majority of storefronts were empty, and the City was desparate for something…anything…to bring people to downtown. Over the years, it has gained a nickname among many residents (Boozin’ Night) thanks to the large amount of alcohol consumed in the streets during the ostensibly ‘family-friendy’ event.

Now in 2016, Geneva’s efforts to brand downtown as a destination for unique shopping, dining and craft beverages are in direct conflict with Cruisin’ Night, the event that’s most often cited as downtown’s “most successful.” But what exactly do they mean by “successful?”

While the bars and restaurants get a nice one-day bump in revenue and street vendors (often from out-of-town) turn a profit, a large number of downtown businesses close for Cruisin’ Night because an alcohol-centered block party isn’t good for most retail or service-oriented businesses. For those businesses, Cruisin’ Night causes a critical loss of revenue on a Friday night during the height of summer tourist season. To date, no one from BID or the City has ever canvassed the entire downtown business community and actually asked business owners if they felt that Cruisin’ Night helped their business and whether they thought it should continue.

Does Cruisin’ Night truly fulfill the mission of the BID? Do visitors get a true sense of everything our eclectic downtown has to offer, our boutique retail shops and unique dining locations, or do they just see beer trucks, street vendors and hot rods?

Those are rhetorical questions, of course. Cruisin’ Night does almost nothing to give visitors a reason to come back to downtown. It’s just another run-of-the-mill block party and does not create a ‘showcase’ of all the eclectic and varied businesses that make downtown unique.

I’ve always wondered who foots the bill if any police need overtime pay during Boozin’ Night, too.

On Saturday, July 25th, 2015, I made the mistake of driving through downtown at around 8:30am. Much of downtown, and especially Seneca Street, was strewn with garbage…plates, empty cups, napkins, and more. The rumor was that there was an issue with BID volunteers showing up to do cleanup. Meanwhile, visitors and any open businesses’ clientele had to step over trash to reach their destinations. For the businesses who lost revenue after being forced to close during Cruisin’ Night and hoped to make up some of the losses the next day, this was a slap in the face.

If Cruisin’ Night is the premier BID-sponsored event, and they left the streets strewn with trash on the next morning, then they should have issued public apologies directly to business owners, and to the public via the media. No apology or public statement was given.

Local property owner and former BID president Bob Stivers, who recently stepped down as president, owns the trucks that serve the beer at Cruisin’ Night. This isn’t illegal but certainly gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, especially if only a limited number of beer trucks are allowed.

Time to BID Adieu

drainWhen the BID comes to City Council asking for more handouts each year, they usually boast about all they do for Geneva…cleaning the streets, hanging the holiday lights (which are paid for by even MORE donations), and Boozin’ Night. But what else?

What is the precise number of businesses whose owners decided to open their doors in our downtown due to the recruitment efforts and assistance from the BID?

How about at least five other examples of how BID has spent taxpayer money to truly, significantly help downtown?

Really, though, after 30 years of taking taxpayer money and doing almost nothing to bolster the downtown business environment, the public should already know the answers to these questions.

In 2016, it’s clear that the BID is not relevant, not useful, and represents the old-boy’s network era of governance. It’s undemocratic and ineffective. Taxpayers have been tapped for hundreds of thousands of dollars and there just hasn’t been enough verifiable success to justify one more dime going to the BID.

Even their slogan – “The Difference is Downtown!” – is straight out of an early 1980s shopping mall ad.

The City of Geneva should let the BID make their own way in the world. If downtown property owners choose to donate to the BID, let them do it. They can raise funds the same way every other non-profit does it. It’s time to genuinely invest in downtown, give the job of keeping it clean and decorated to full-time City employees and stop acting like it’s still 1992.

The City no longer can justify their relationship with the BID.

Below you will find links to ten years of BID tax returns (2004-2014). I found them interesting, and thought some readers may, too.

Believe!

2004  –  2005  –  2006  –  2007  –  2008  –  2009  –  2010  –  2011  –  2012  –  2013  –  2014

Read the [Update to Part 1] and [Part 2] of the Geneva BID series
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