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Editorial: Stronger BID law has merit

It’s clear that Northampton’s fledgling Business Improvement District has given the city’s vibrant downtown a shot in the arm since its inception three-plus years ago. Downtown streets are cleaner and more attractive. New programs have been added and longtime events like the Sidewalk Sales and Restaurant Week carry on thanks to the district’s support.

Perhaps most importantly, retail and hospitality businesses are benefitting. The city’s meal and hotel taxes are up, vacancy rates are low and the downtown has some of the highest rents in the Valley. The city’s downtown, by many measuring sticks, is flourishing.

But much more can be done to help the city’s downtown. That’s why we believe the Legislature’s recent decision to strengthen the state’s BID law by eliminating the opt-out measure for commercial landlords is a sensible one. The little-noticed provision was signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick in August as part of an emergency jobs bill.

BIDs are private groups of property owners who band together to tax themselves to fund maintenance, security and marketing initiatives beyond the levels municipalities provide. In addition to Northampton and Amherst, BIDs are in place in Springfield and Westfield.

The new law eliminates the ability of property owners to opt out of a BID after one has been created, bringing Massachusetts more in line with BIDs in communities in other states.

In BIDs that are already operating, such as those in Northampton and Amherst, non-participants would be forced to accept the additional tax after district members pass a renewal vote. This renewal, required every five years, gives property owners recourse to dissolve a BID if it is not providing an adequate return on their investment.

New members to a BID will have the same rights as all members, whether or not they initially opted out. That means they’ll be able to vote on BID initiatives and participate in annual elections to its board of directors.

The promise of more members — and therefore more money — should allow our local BIDs to step up their work and tackle worthwhile new projects to enhance commercial vibrancy. BID officials in Northampton have repeatedly said they don’t single out property owners who opt out by skipping the cleanup and maintenance in front of their buildings.

That position is reasonable. When it comes to improvements and other initiatives, BID leaders are wise to take a holistic approach. But it’s unfair that property owners who opted out of Northampton’s BID receive benefits without paying additional taxes. The days of the free ride should end.

We might feel differently if the BID’s track record in Northampton over the last three years had been different. But the organization and its supporters have made a difference downtown, despite having far less money — $420,000 annually instead of $720,000 — than originally anticipated.

No one likes the fear of an added tax, but BIDs provide an important investment in downtown. That’s something we all have a stake in, even if it means the additional tax trickles down from property owners to businesses and, inevitably, to customers.

At the end of the day, the BID’s mission will only work if we’re one community and the input of all with a stake in downtown is heard. The legislation brings that idea closer to reality.

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