23. Downtowns and BIDs Can Do More to Face the Recession

The BIDs formed 20-30 years ago emerged from decades of urban centered recession and were intended to face protracted hard times in cities. Uniformed supplementary security, removal of long neglected litter and much of the marketing messages were designed to make visitors, office workers and shoppers less apprehensive, encouraging them to come, stay longer and spend.

Early BIDs were typically city based, large in acreage and revenues. They probably would not have been supported unless personal and property safety had been high on their agenda.

Over time, several things changed. Urban crime dropped off the media screens. Downtown areas enhanced by BID services looked better. And because there were more attractive things to see and do, there were more people on the sidewalks. The late urbanist William H. White wrote that the condition most reassuring to urban pedestrians was the presence of an abundance of other pedestrians. BIDs offered abundant and appealing experience opportunities to a consumer market that had come to seek something more than simply shopping.

Another gradual change concerned the location and size of the subsequent waves of BIDs. The overwhelming number of today’s BIDs are small compared with the first ones, have budgets only a fraction of the size of large ones and are more often than not in suburban and other centers without substantial fear of crime impeding shopping and private investment.

Today, a worldwide recession is in place. More businesses will be lost. Footfall will drop. Money for priority projects will diminish. Crime rates (or at least the fear of crime) will rise. The FBI attributes the current rise in bank robberies to the recession; 36% of city respondents told Pew Research that crime is a big problem. There are more panhandlers on sidewalks. The International Council of Shopping Centers predicts that 150,000 stores will close this year and that 15% of the existing retail base will be gone in two years.

So let’s review actions that BIDs and most other downtown management organizations might consider in order to maintain insofar as possible optimum economic functioning.

Public space maintenance. As ever, conserve BID revenues by subjecting cleaning programs to tough tests – is it essential, will it help meet important local goals, could some of these funds be applied to more urgent needs such as attracting more pedestrians?

Lighting. Making sidewalks measurably brighter helps boost crowds and reduces pedestrian fear. Public lighting is important but so are bright store and restaurant windows.

Closed Circuit Television. Long a feature in Britain, CCTV is being adopted in some small U.S. BIDs to protect parked cars and real estate and to help night businesses. Knowledge of its existence is believed to deter crimes and provide pedestrian reassurance. Restaurateurs love it.

Communication. The marketing message should subtly underscore that the district is safe. Give even greater emphasis to the theme that the district is successful. Stay in regular contact with owners and tenants and especially consumers. What is bothering them?

Reassure employees. Set up systems to escort employees to their cars after dark. If they are frightened, they will tell others.

Sell the nights. Put more activity on the sidewalks after work and in the evenings when shoppers are needed. Music and events such as First Friday art gallery tours can help. Unfavorable word of mouth proved devastating prior to BIDs.

Recruiting. Reconsider the effectiveness of the current business recruitment strategy, it’s more important now, than ever. Clean sidewalks won’t do it. More incentives, financial and marketing, will be needed to land strong new businesses and to focus real estate agents on the district’s advantages. Fill empty windows with eye-catching displays for active stores, public events and BID activities. Move money from lower priority activities to this work; shuttered businesses lower morale and lead to defeatism when it is most dangerous. Encourage more residents to reside in the district, building a stronger consumer base among those who will spend the most locally. As revitalization specialist David Milder says, don’t settle for marginal tenants; you’ll wish that space was available when conditions improve.

Cooperation. Where maintenance funds are not equal to the challenges, organize more voluntary work by residents and employees. Partly to keep spirits up (this recession could be a long one), make sure the charters for committees and the board of directors include goals leading to more prosperous conditions. The best ideas and most of the work will come from those who are paying rents, salaries and taxes.

Plan ahead. Are there prospects for anti-recession stimulus projects? For projects that could be made real through tax increment financing?

Cost sharing. Look for opportunities to share with local government the costs of services most akin to municipal ones – e.g., landscape installation and maintenance – to free up funds for activities like business attraction and marketing that the BID must carry alone. The economic circumstances are changed and so priorities should be reconsidered.

BIDs are better positioned to stave off bad times now than they were a generation ago. They have tested organizations to respond to problems and capitalize on opportunities. BIDs performing well are assured of sustained, non-categorical revenues they can control. In Britain, the recession has stirred new interest in BIDs.

A recent Philadelphia Federal Reserve District-Wharton School study indicates that places that have an abundance of experience opportunities – that is, attractive things to see and do – perform better economically. Amenities-based growth fits comfortably with BID investments in improved quality of life. A decade or more of targeted money, attention to appearances and a new reputation for safe streets suggest that most districts will not revert to the desolate conditions of yore.

On the other hand, marginal downtowns have more than their share of businesses that don’t advertise, are not open nights, don’t keep their lights on after dark and skimp on maintenance. These familiar elements will produce districts with more than their share of closings. Every lost enterprise, even poor ones, produces empty commercial space, another “For Rent” sign and fewer people on the pavements.

BIDs need to emphasize the essentials of downtown success – convenience, amenity, and civility. With fewer consumer dollars available, BIDs must compete more intensively than ever before.

Baruch University professor Jerry Mitchell urges BIDs to partner with other organizations to hire more of the unemployed, provide internships and similar measures, “reinventing themselves as civic institutions, (more important) than merely serving as business promoters, street sweepers and crime fighters.”

The next year or two are likely to be trying times for downtown organizations throughout Europe, the U.S., and Canada. More than ever before, they will have to be resourcefnl and learn from each other. The best strategy for combating recession is to do well what the best BIDs routinely do.

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