Old Town Business, a business association in Alexandria, is leading a renewed effort to establish a business improvement district in Old Town Alexandria, several years after the city abandoned the idea.
The plan would transform the association from a volunteer-run organization to an official Business Improvement Service District, which would collect a special tax from business owners to be used to “promote and improve the business environment,” according to Amy Rutherford, a member of OTB and the owner of Red Barn Mercantile and Penny Post.
This would include efforts such as running events (similar to the events OTB currently organizes, like the Cookie Crawl and trick-or-treating), marketing and placemaking, organizing ambassadors to look out for the interests of Old Town businesses, providing support for new businesses, and serving as a unified voice to advocate for Old Town on city matters.
Business owners within the district would pay an additional tax on top of their property taxes, bringing them from $1.11 to $1.21 per every $100 of assessed value annually. This represents roughly a 9 percent increase on their total property taxes.
A similar measure was introduced in 2017, but then-city-manager Mark Jinks said the exploratory committee looking into the business improvement district determined it wasn’t feasible. The proposal faced considerable opposition from business owners and residents.
According to Rutherford, OTB made an effort in the early stages of developing the current proposal to seek input from those who had opposed the previous plan. Since the 2017 version failed, several aspects have changed.
First, the boundaries of which businesses will be involved are narrower.
The current map would involve the following:
- All businesses with frontage along King Street between the Potomac River and the King Street Metro;
- Businesses located east of Union Street, between Queen Street and Wolfe Street;
- Businesses with frontage on the west side of Union Street between Queen Street and Duke Street;
- Those with frontage along Diagonal Street between King Street and Duke Street;
- Those with frontage along the streets which intersect with King Street, between Prince Street and Cameron Street.
Another concern had been with the organization of the leadership, which Rutherford says had previously been “very complicated.” Now, the leadership of the BISD will consist of 13 to 15 board members — first determined by city council then voted on by existing members — as well as two non-voting residents and two non-voting representatives from Visit Alexandria and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.
Rutherford says that the pandemic also plays a role in the difference, as it has opened people’s eyes to the need for the benefits of having a designated organization representing business interests.
“We just went through a pandemic. We just saw how desperately we need something like this,” Rutherford says. “We need one voice speaking for Old Town to get things done.”
And, while Rutherford says that OTB has been performing many of these services through the pandemic, running these operations on a volunteer basis is “unsustainable.” If the BISD is not approved, she says, OTB would likely cease operations after finishing out the fiscal year.
Business owners and residents who are in support of the BISD can sign a petition or submit letters of support on its website.
In order for the BISD to gain approval, signatures of approval from 60 percent of the property owners need to be gathered. The proposal would then go to Alexandria City Council for a first vote in late March, followed by a final vote in mid-April. If approved, the new association hopes to begin operating by this summer.
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