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Editorial: Northampton BID seeks right path forward after law change

The public has spoken and the Northampton Business Improvement District has listened. There is now a plan in the works to lower member fees and shrink the BID’s district to the downtown core.

Reconsideration of how the BID does business was nudged forward by a new state law that will force all property owners in the district to pay BID fees. When the BID was created four years ago, membership was optional. Even though the district would be much smaller, the number of commercial properties that would become BID members would go up to 135 from the current 115. Among the services the BID provides are beautification of the downtown, marketing efforts and sponsoring events such as the Sidewalk Sales and First Night.

The Northampton BID’s draft plan addresses concerns of members who, in a survey, said a change in fees and size is needed. It also touches on some of the complaints non-member property owners have expressed about the BID.

We think the BID is doing the right thing in examining its fees and scope. Whether change takes place or not, as many of the BID’s members know, it’s always good to listen to the customer. And we hope the BID is attentive to the kudos and critiques of all affected property-owners as it moves forward.

This month the BID mailed a map of the new boundaries and other explanatory materials to 335 downtown property owners. It plans to call for a meeting in early April to discuss the idea.

There’s been tension between members and non-members who are benefiting from the BID’s work without paying a fee. This is understandable. While no one likes to be forced into doing something — even if it helps business — if you’re benefiting from a service, you should pay for it. If the service is not to your liking, as a paying member, you can influence change.

However, downtown businesses benefit from the BID’s efforts to different degrees. Professional offices such as doctors, lawyers and accountants don’t need a sparkling downtown to draw in clients.

They aren’t being rewarded by the BID the same way retail shops and restaurants are, though not many people would want to visit a doctor on skid row. The BID’s director has expressed an interest in exploring a tiered membership fee structure.

Under the draft plan, the new BID boundaries stretch east along both sides of Main Street from State Street (Edwards Church and the Academy of Music) to Hawley Street (Spoleto restaurant). It includes a small portion of Pleasant and King streets, as well as some buildings along side streets off Main, including Crafts Avenue, Old South, Gothic and Masonic streets.

Many properties that fall within the district’s current boundaries would be left out of this version, including the West Street area and Smith College to the west, sections of Pleasant and King streets, much of Center, State and Masonic streets that aren’t close to Main, and one side of Strong Avenue.

As far as fees go, the BID is considering lowering the assessment paid by property owners by 20 to 40 percent. Members now pay based on a calculation of assessed valuation multiplied by 0.005. A building assessed at $500,000, for example, faces a fee of $2,500.

The new boundaries would require a successful petition approved by the City Council through a vote. This is similar to the process the BID went through four years ago. That means organizers will need to get 60 percent of the property owners who represent 51 percent of the assessed value of all the proposed district’s land to sign a petition in support of the idea.

The state law that banished the voluntary nature of the BID could cause the improvement district some trouble. The BID’s membership could draw in a substantial number of owners opposed to paying for its services. These unhappy members, now able to vote on BID decisions, could elect to dissolve it.

Non-BID members can’t just be clubbed over the head with state law and dragged into an association they revile. The BID is going to have to implement changes that make the district more inclusive and fair to all members. The BID needs to pay close attention to property owners’ concerns.

Not listening to them now could kill the BID later.

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