A controversy is brewing in the normally tranquil parcel known for high-end retail shops and fine-dining. With the economy in doldrums, some Village businesses feel that some sort of localized stimulus program is necessary to keep the dollars flowing. Their plan? Form a BID (Business Improvement District), tax all business owners that fall inside it, and use the money to promote Claremont.
“We need this,” says Sonja Stump, former chair of the Claremont Chamber of Commerce and owner of Sonja Stump Photography.
“We can’t afford this,” counters Ellen Chase-Harper, who manages the Folk Music Center.
Both sides are actively trying to win the hearts and minds of their neighbors, all of whom will have to cast a vote eventually.
BID’s have become increasingly common in cities across the United States, implemented as a resource tool to deal with problems beyond the reach of local government or law enforcement. For example, a BID formed in downtown LA has helped reduce crime and blight by using collected fees to hire private security guards, as well as fund many civic programs. Conversely, some BID’s face allegations of misappropriated funds and cronyism.
Unlike many BID cities, the Village streets are clean and the crime rate is low, so the fees collected would go primarily for marketing and promotion. BID critics say this is a job for the Chamber. “Why should we give them more money?” asks Barbara Cheatley, who owns an antique collectible shop in the Village under the same name.
Then there is the matter of the tax, and again, proprietors are divided. Some feel this is not a good time to increase city fees; others feel they can’t afford not to.
Sonja Stump is sympathetic to the concerns of her fellow business owners. “The bad economy? Don’t I know it,” says Stump, sweeping her hand across an empty studio. “My business is as low as it’s ever been.”
However, Stump knows a thing or two about PR. As a volunteer for the Village Marketing Group (VMG), she has logged—by her estimation—thousands of volunteer hours over the years coordinating such events as the annual Wine Walk fundraiser, which in turn provides the wherewithal to finance several non-profit charities like Shoes That Fit. The VMG also designs the travel brochures found at Ontario Airport and elsewhere.
But, Stump says, the Wine Walk money only goes so far. For the Village to continue to be the destination of choice for consumers, it’s imperative to form a proactive BID. For Stump and BID supporters, it doesn’t seem fair that many businesses benefit from the volunteer efforts of a few.
“People tend to think selfishly about their own businesses,” says Stump. “We need to look at this from a perspective of looking outward and forward.”
Not so fast, says Chase-Harper, who maintains the lack of concrete information about the BID is a major stumbling block. “We don’t know how much it will be, what it’s based on, what it will be used for and how long it will stay in place.”
Chase-Harper also warns that, once passed, City Hall will be thrust into the role of enforcer. “If the BID passes, the city will collect the tax and give it to the BID. If you don’t pay, then the city can put a lien on your business. That’s why I don’t think this is a good plan.”
Even with the heated rhetoric, the BID is a long way from becoming reality. The Village BID organizers follow a formation process flowchart with ten boxes on it. Stump says, “We’re still on the first box,” the one that develops the budget and boundaries and assesses a formula. One budget plan calls for 100-percent valuation of the yearly business license fee, with caps if need be. For most merchants, this will mean a doubling of their annual fees. Even Stump admits there are limits to what she could afford to pay.
“If it costs too much, I can’t vote for it,” she says.
One thing Stump and Chase-Harper can both agree on is that merchants who are oblivious of the nature of the BID will have a tremendous effect on the outcome. Like many local elections, lack of participation could sway the outcome. If local owners are ambivalent to the process, there will be nothing they can do about the result.
“Most business owners say that either it can’t be legal or they won’t pay,” says Chase-Harper. “But they are legal, and they will have to pay.”