Business, community leaders discuss benefits of business improvement district

·3 min read

Jun. 11—WATERTOWN — Coordinate and market downtown as one entity. Have popup musicians perform after hours. Organize shop weekends downtown. Create more public art.

These were some of the ideas that members of Advantage Watertown, a group of business and community leaders who meet monthly to discuss city issues, came up with during a brainstorming session on Thursday about what should be included in a proposed Business Improvement District, or BID.

They shared their ideas as Joseph Wessner, president of the Watertown Downtown Business Association, hasn't given up on establishing a BID for downtown. Thursday's brainstorming session helped get the discussion going again on why Watertown should establish a BID, he said.

"We have an emerging downtown," he said, adding how a BID could turn the business district into "a successful downtown."

Dr. Jason White, who serves as Advantage Watertown's chairman, is a BID proponent.

A BID would take "a little cooperation and working together" to make the ideas that were brought up on Thursday morning to happen, he said.

The BID would collaborate on marketing and beautification programs to promote the BID and its businesses, provide security, add more downtown events, work on economic development, coordinate and partner with other downtown groups, as well as make other improvements. The boundaries of BID would include Public Square and its surrounding area of downtown.

On Thursday, Advantage Watertown members also suggested a BID could connect downtown with the Black River, provide coordinated leadership, create a team of volunteers, use social media to publicize coordinated events and tell Watertown's historic story.

In March, City Council members decided that they would not support a BID, citing its cost to property owners by creating an assessment fee.

Back then, Mr. Wessner vowed not to stop working on a business improvement district project until he got 75% of downtown property owners to support it. The BID needs support from just 51% of property owners to get it started.

He's now reworking the BID proposal, putting together a business plan that would show a cost benefits ratio in how it would benefit BID members and the city. He also plans to get more public support and talk to property owners about what BIDs can do.

Since March, he's talked to a number of communities in the state and around the country about how their BIDs transformed their downtowns. For instance, Nashville's BID contains about 1% of its boundary but its BID brings in about 20% of its sales tax revenues. Started about 10 years ago, a BID that includes one street in Miami increased the city's sales tax revenues about 4,000% after it was formed, he said.

"I want to make it that 100% of the visitors to Watertown would come downtown," Dr. White said.

But Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith has not supported the BID as it was proposed because he saw it as a fourth tax to property owners and it would duplicate services.

On Thursday, the mayor paraphrased President John F. Kennedy's quote about what people should do for their country and how it implies to forming a BID.

"Ask not what your government can do for you," he said, "But what you can do for your government."

But Advantage Watertown member Brian Ashley said a BID should be looked at as an investment into downtown, not how much it would cost.