Other Taxing Issues - Downtown Warrensburg Community Improvement District
Free Press Analysis
published after several public meetings for the district, which is being promoted by Warrensburg Main Street leadership
It appears that the concept of a downtown Community Improvement District to benefit Warrensburg Main Street, Inc., has run into real trouble. The public meetings that have started well have degenerated from discussion into argument, and opposition has solidified.
So far, here’s what has happened: Main Street leadership concluded that their traditional sources of funding, contributions from businesses, individuals and governmental units, were shrinking and would be unable to support the organization. To increase funding they proposed establishing a Community Improvement District to encompass the entire area that is zoned Central Business District (CBD) by the city. An assessment of $2 per $100 assessed valuation against all privately-owned property in the CBD would generate about $100,000 a year, which would provide enough money to pay their staff and conduct other activities.
The problem arose when business owners learned about the proposed assessment and Main Street did not have a concrete plan to propose what would be done with the money. Furthermore, Main Street did not consider how different types of properties (business, residential rental and owner-occupied residential) in the CBD would benefit. The difference in tax treatment alone could be substantial, and any immediate benefits would seem to accrue mostly to the businesses and perhaps to those residential rentals located in business buildings.
There is a perception that Main Street operates below the public radar. Residents and business owners who questioned the proposal believe that it was developed in secrecy. Since Main Street proposed a dollar figure, complete with detailed lists by property, and had a draft brochure at the first public meeting, that belief wasn’t unreasonable. Main Street questioned a previous article’s statement about personnel-related expenses, but did not provide any salary figures (which should include fringe benefits, employer taxes and possibly travel). Main Street also operates with a very closely-controlled board and has not provided any alternative for opening membership.
Another problem Main Street has is the timing of the proposal. Streets are torn up and many merchants are losing business. No one would disagree that the utility improvement portion of the downtown streetscape program is long overdue. However, many businesses are irate about the “pedestrian bump-outs” which will narrow the turning radius for larger trucks. As long as the sale of adult beverages is a substantial part of downtown’s economy, streets will need to accommodate large delivery trucks; business owners do not believe Main Street’s assurance that no problem will exist.
I am struck by the difference between downtown Warrensburg and downtown Clinton. A couple of weeks ago, I counted only 3 vacant store-fronts on Clinton’s square, and only one of these did not have a prospective tenant lined up. Most of the buildings house retail businesses. Downtown Clinton has many restored buildings and the city was named an “All American City” a couple of years ago. Warrensburg, by contrast, has more empty buildings and others used for storage. Clinton does have a nice streetscape with corner ”bump-outs” but the streets surrounding the square are so wide they support four lanes of angle parking; Warrensburg has relatively narrow streets. Clinton is obviously doing something right.
Now, I am a long-time supporter of downtown Warrensburg. I use a number of downtown businesses and promote downtown on my own business’s website. A number of years ago I developed the commercial history signs still seen in a few building windows. So my prescription for improvement is based on a desire to see a thriving downtown.
Main Street’s first goal must be to establish trust with the property owners they intend to represent. This should include openness of operation and organizational governance, a clear vision for downtown, and comprehensive funding program.
One key step would be to revise their bylaws to allow a more public selection of new members for their Board of Directors. Since this Board will control the expenditure of any assessment they may eventually have approved, those who would pay the assessment need a voice. In conjunction with this change, they need to operate as though they were subject to the Sunshine Law, which they will be in any case if they ever pass an assessment.
Main Street needs to show a specific plan for how they want to see downtown develop. This needs to be more than just the streetscape. There should be a lot of good data from the Warrensburg Visioning sessions a few years back. Business and other property owners could be interviewed, perhaps as a follow-up to a written survey. Then, Main Street can prioritize the needs and assign costs to them. Then, and only then, they could develop a financial plan and subject it to the test of public scrutiny. After projects and goals are added, subtracted or deferred, they’d know how much money they’d need and what kind of balance between contributions and assessments would be appropriate.
It will be good for Warrensburg if Main Street gets its act together and becomes an effective organization that helps preserve and improve downtown.