Wednesday, June 8, 2011

DOWNTOWN BUSINESSES: Are their voices heard -- or lost?

From City Hall to the CID, rising demands stress fragile economic eco-system   

COLUMBIA, 6/8/11  (Beat Byte) -- Two Saturdays ago in downtown Columbia -- aka "The District" -- my wife and I watched a police officer with a squad car and a public works employee in a hybrid vehicle slapping windshields with parking tickets.  

From out-of-town parents dressed for university events to diners and shoppers strolling in and out of restaurants and stores, the District's all-important customers were getting a dose of an alarming new reality.

City Hall and the various land-owning interests that control downtown need money, and are taking it from groups least able to afford it.  

The school district and other property-tax funded entities are on the hook for "redevelopment" incentives such as TIFs.  Employees, customers and anyone who ventures downtown in a car risk rising parking fines and parking fee hikes. 

Finally, the individual business owners who drive the District economy face escalating business costs at the worst possible time in our nationwide economic cycle. 

Pocket Sock It 
 
District merchants -- the majority of whom lease their space -- pay special property taxes and other assessments as rents that are among the highest -- if not the highest -- in Boone County.   But for all their payments -- and the life blood they bring to the city -- the average restaurant, curio shop, art gallery, or bookstore owner has a muted voice relative to City Hall and a handful of downtown developers. 
 
No doubt, private development -- particularly projects that preserve historic buildings -- has been a tremendous boon to the entire city.  But a creeping burden is being shifted onto the shoulders of the District's small business economic engines. 
New pocketbook stressors are due to hit soon, from those skyrocketing parking fees and fines to a special sales tax to fund a downtown bureaucracy called the Community Improvement District or CID, born of two other bureaucracies, the Central Columbia Association and the Special Business District.

Though sold to improve downtown's business climate, the fees and assessments mostly fund new building initiativesCase in point:  this July 2010 CID meeting minutes mentions tangible merchant benefits only briefly, instead focusing almost entirely on development incentives as it pushes the new downtown-only sales tax.  From the PowerPoint:

"Redevelopment on a site of one acre or more is eligible for partial exemptions...." 

"Decrease impervious surface on site by 15%...."

"Lots with an improved preliminary or final plat..."

"...unreasonable burdens...in the stormwater manual..."  

Economic Ecosystem 

Community ecosystems are fragile things. 

Physically, the might of a tornado can crush them in an instant.  Economic stressors need more time to take a toll, but the devastation can be just as severe -- and more permanent, as the boarded-up buildings, high taxes, foreclosed houses, and defunct downtowns in neighboring communities all around the mid-West remind.

Columbia occupies a special place in this fragile economic ecosystem.  Our leaders should be cautious in the burdens they keep piling on. 

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