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BID backers race against the clock to get Old Town property owners on board

Shopping in Old Town (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

After years of doing marketing and advocating for local businesses, members of the volunteer-run group Old Town Business say they’re tired — and ready for a Business Improvement District (BID) to take over.

In the first public meeting about a possible BID, leaders of Old Town Business made a case for the district as the only sustainable path forward for businesses running along King Street “from the rails to the water.”

But they only have a month to make that case to Old Town’s property owners.

According to a framework approved last year, a BID needs 60% of commercial property owners to sign their support. There are 1,000 parcels within the scope of the BID, around 490 or 500 of those are part of the funding framework. So of those parcels, the BID supporters need to get the owners of 300 parcels to sign on in support.

Currently, proponents said there are around 100 property owners who have pledged to support the BID, though they admit many of those are the larger landowners who were the “low-hanging fruit” for a proposal like this.

Now begins the more difficult step of getting individual property owners to sign on, some of whom are concerned such an organization may be too focused on events.

But the biggest issue for proponents of the BID could prove to be timing. A city-hired lawyer working with the BID proponents would need to have 60% support by mid-March to get the proposal on the City docket for later in March. With the public outreach starting today (Wednesday), that gives BID supporters around one month to get the majority of the stakeholders on their side.

Scott Shaw, managing partner of Alexandria Restaurant Partners, admitted that the BID proponents would have liked a few more weeks to get support.

“There were delays on the City Council side,” Shaw said. “We’re running into a deadline for this year’s tax calendar… We’re compressing this more than we want to, we’re aware of that.”

The BID, officially called the Old Town Business — Business Improvement Service District (OTB-BISD), would span from the King Street Metro station to waterfront, including some businesses along the waterfront and on Diagonal Road by the Metro station. It would help organize and market events at a regional level and do more “placemaking” like banners, wayfinding and outdoor programming.

Amy Rutherford, Board president at Old Town Businesses, said the BID would focus on marketing to regional neighbors, like getting the word out in Arlington or Silver Spring about activities planned in Old Town.

While full beautification efforts are beyond the scope of what’s planned for the BID, she said the BID could handle things like installing maps pointing to local coffee shops or clearing cigarette butts out of the sidewalks.

“We’re a high-end community, we can do better to clean up our streets,” said Rutherford.

Shaw said the BID would also be tasked with tackling Old Town’s parking problems, working on solutions to get more employees off street parking and into parking garages and underused lots. But he emphasized the organization won’t be a stand-in for city government.

“We’re not doing anything the City or [Visit Alexandria] are doing,” said Shaw. “We don’t want to be Georgetown, where the BID does things the city should be doing.”

The cost for businesses is priced at 10 cents per $100 of assessed value, giving the BID a roughly $1 million budget. Nonprofits and residential-only buildings wouldn’t be billed for that, but commercial, office and mixed-use buildings would.

The BID proposal comes with something of an ultimatum: Old Town Businesses is likely going away in one way or another. It could transform into the BID, if the backers manage to get that 60% approval, but if not, Rutherford said the volunteer organization likely wouldn’t continue operating.

At the first meeting, many of the local business owners in attendance were in support of the BID, but many also had concerns about what was being proposed.

Multiple business owners said they were concerned about the focus on events, noting that many events do little to help boost sales and only shut down streets and make business more difficult. Others had concerns about a lack of a strategic plan and very generalized notions like “events” without specific details.

While some business owners said they were on still on the fence, many of those said they still support the idea of a BID and want to see is succeed.

The next meeting is tonight (Tuesday) via Zoom from 6:30-7:30 p.m. The next in-person meeting is on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at Lorien Hotel (1600 King Street) with public information sessions throughout the day.

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