Thursday, July 10, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Despite controversy, members of the downtown Business Improvement District resoundingly renewed the organization Wednesday for another five years.
The 40-0 vote, required by recent changes in state law that force nearly all property owners within the downtown district to become members, means the BID will more than triple the number of fee-paying property owners from 66 to 216. The number of parcels within the district is also expected to grow considerably, from 112 to 279.
The results of the vote surprised few who attended the morning meeting, given that only the 56 current BID members were eligible to cast ballots. BID Executive Director Natasha Yakovlev said the renewal is a positive development for the organization that has developed a solid track record of beautification, event sponsorship and marketing downtown since its creation in 2009.
She said she is particularly pleased so many current members participated in the renewal vote.
“The show of support was huge and it shows us that the community values what we do,” Yakovlev said.
She said she believes a sunset clause in state law that requires the BID to take a renewal vote every five years and the organization’s decision to reduce fees by 50 percent starting this month are steps that might help offset the financial sting that some downtown property owners may feel from being forced to join.
Under the new fee structure, members pay a fee based on the calculation of assessed valuation multiplied by .0025, down from .005. A building assessed at $500,000, for example, will pay $1,250 rather than $2,500.
The BID is not in for smooth sailing in the coming months, as opponents continue to decry what they say is an unjust renewal process. The more than 60 percent of property owners who initially opted out of the BID five years ago were not allowed to vote in the initial renewal vote Wednesday, according to changes made in the state law in August 2012.
“Considering the number of property owners in Northampton, to have 40 people decide whether or not a huge number should be members of the BID against their will underlies the unfairness of the vote for non-BID members,” said Alan Scheinman, one of the BID’s most vocal critics.
Scheinman is a plaintiff in two lawsuits against the BID and the city — one in Hampshire Superior Court challenging the adoption of the BID five years ago and another in federal court arguing that the change in state law is unconstitutional.
A trial has been scheduled for late August in the state lawsuit, which Scheinman filed along with downtown property owners Eric Suher and David Pesuit. Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office has put the federal case on hold pending the outcome of the state case. The federal case was brought in 2012 by Scheinman, former judge W. Michael Ryan and Suher Properties Inc.
Shortly after Wednesday’s vote, Scheinman’s attorney, Alexandra H. Glover, filed a preliminary injunction in federal court on behalf of Scheinman, Ryan and Suher Properties asking that the BID be barred from collecting fees from the formerly non-participating property owners who are now members. The injunction requests a hearing on the matter as soon as possible, though BID officials said Wednesday they do not plan on sending out bills to new members until October.
Northampton’s BID is one of many that have taken successful renewal votes in recent months, including those in Amherst, Springfield and Westfield. In Westfield, however, the City Council this week approved a petition from property owners to dissolve the BID.
Scheinman said opponents have no plans to launch a similar initiative in Northampton.
Several Northampton BID members at Wednesday’s vote spoke about the benefits the BID provides to downtown, noting that the collective buying power is stronger than trying to maintain downtown as individuals.
“I’m grateful that the small amount that I can contribute goes into a bigger kitty and it has much more value and has much more impact than what I can do individually,” said Linda Hannum, who owns Salon Herdis and a portion of the building at 231 Main St. that houses the business.
Judith Fine, who owns Gazebo on Center Street, who is not a property owner, but is a “tenant member” of the BID, said she is a staunch supporter of the work the BID does for all of downtown. Fine, who is not allowed to vote, cautioned that no other organization will step up to do the beautification and other work the BID is doing should the organization go away, as some opponents would like to see.
“We’re all part of the same thing, guys — if it takes a village to make it happen, then we are the village,” Fine said. “If the BID doesn’t become the mayor of the village that we all need to be a part of and lead us forward in terms of vibrancy and success, there’s only one way to go, and it is not up.”
One BID opponent, Shaun Hebert, who owns a building at 77 Pleasant St., takes exception to the idea that the entire village supports the BID. He opted out five years ago and said he is upset that a small group of property owners can decide the fate of the majority.
“If it takes a village, then let everyone in the village vote,” Hebert said. “Their hearts are in the right place, but they can’t speak for the majority with a minority vote.”
Now that those who opted out are members, Hebert predicted a BID renewal vote five years from now will be defeated.
Yakovlev acknowledges that the renewal vote will upset many property owners who were forced to become members. That’s why the BID is in the process of scheduling several meetings later this year to hear comments and concerns from all members.
“We will try to connect the dots for them on what the BID does,” Yakovlev said.
BID President Charles Bowles said the board of directors is expected to grow in size to reflect the expanded membership.
The BID board has also taken other steps to soften the financial blow for incoming members. The board has decided not to send bills to new members until October. Additionally, the City Council earlier this year approved a request to lower BID fees.
The BID boundaries are not changing. The district generally includes much of the central business district and Smith College property, and is bounded by Trumbull Road to the north, the Nagle Walkway in front of Union Station to the south, West Street to the west and Market Street to the east.
In a presentation to start the meeting, Yakovlev outlined many of the BID’s accomplishments over the last five years. A four-member maintenance team works seven days a week to clean and keep downtown clean and make minor repairs. The BID also pays for 96 hanging baskets and 48 flower containers throughout the downtown.
In addition to marketing downtown to outside visitors, the BID also sponsors or collaborates with other organizations on many events. Among those are Sidewalk Sales, Restaurant Week, holiday lighting program, Chalk Art and Ice Art Festivals and many others.
Looking ahead, Yakovlev said the BID will seek to address many challenges laid out by members. These include working with the city to address parking issues, which might include launching an awareness campaign to let visitors know where they can park and participating in a city-led parking study just getting underway.
Yakovlev said the BID will also look to expand networking opportunities for its members and to improve communications with members through the creation of a quarterly newsletter.