Thursday, January 30, 2014

Shouldn't we be responding to a growing BID backlash?

Business Improvement Districts are a powerful economic development tool. In 2009, a study by Econsult funded by LISC and the William Penn Foundation, considered a variety of interventions and their impact on the City of Philadelphia's commercial corridors. The findings were unequivocal, the “introduction of Business/Neighborhood Improvement Districts…demonstrate a statistically significant, positive relationship with the indicators of corridor performance”. Impact was measured by retail sales, retail sales same store growth, shopping trips and real estate values – measurements most would accept as fair barometers of a district’s economic well being. 

Yet despite this powerful evidence (which quite frankly many do not know about) detractors of individual BID efforts continue to successfully make their case, sometimes in court. Consider these examples: 
  • In Los Angeles, the Downtown Arts District was dissolved after a judge ruled on behalf of a small group of BID members who made the case that BID funds used for economic development of the district benefited the general public and therefore did not constitute “special benefits” for BID members. This apparent breach in state law was deemed sufficient to dissolve the BID. 
  • In Northhampton, Massachusetts, a group of property owners filed a federal lawsuit against the state, contending that mandatory BID fees are unconstitutional and an illegal tax.
  • In Ashville, North Carolina, the committee spearheading a multi-year effor to form a downtown BID recently decided to go dormant after critics argued that the assessment was unnecessary in light of recent municipal tax increases. 

The concerns range from lack of transparency, lack of clear demonstrated impact, to a common and perhaps universal desire to avoid paying anything at all (see “tragedy of the commons”). The public realm, which is what is typically improved through BID services, is a common resource. While individual property owners benefit by keeping a little extra money in their pocket when they oppose a BID, the damage to the downtown environment is shared by all. After the dissolution of the LA Arts District BID for instance, there was a dramatic increase in violent and property crime and the number of reported incidents jumped from 45 to 59, a 31% spike. Grand theft auto increased from three to eight reported incidents, a 166% increase, and thefts doubled from eight to 16. 

This is a call to action. I would love to see the industry develop a strong response to this growing backlash, starting at the very least with the following:

PROFESSIONAL CERTIFICATION: Industry-accepted professional certification and training to ensure that those running BIDs are qualified and have the skills and knowledge base necessary to do their jobs well. There are some certification programs out there (i.e. Seth Grossman's efforts at Rutgers come to mind, as well as the City of New York's Coro Neighborhood Leadership Program which I helped develop.)

BID ACCREDITATION: We need clear standards and quality management, at the national level, for the BID industry. In England, the British BID council has developed an accreditation system. They actually go out into the field and audit a BIDs management and supervisory systems. This level of oversight offers BID stakeholders important assurances that the BID is well run and having an impact on the district.

INDUSTRY RESEARCH. We desperately need better research on the impact of BIDs  at the national level that would allow us all to be better advocates.  

The real question here is where is the national leadership on this issue? I would love to see the national organizations, like the International Downtown Association (IDA) or the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) or even the American Planning Association (APA) begin thinking along these lines. We really can't afford to ignore the backlash brewing in our midst for too much longer. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Are you our friend on Facebook?

Sorry! Sometimes it takes us a little extra time to find something inspiring to blog about. When three weeks have gone by...we all collectively go "yikes!"

So, for those of you looking for more content, don't forget that we post interesting articles and links nearly everyday on our CDAdvisor Facebook page. So if you want to keep up with us, check us out at Click below to go directly to our Facebook page!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

RFPs Issued for Philadelphia Neighborhood Commercial Corridors Programs

Attention Philly folks - two Requests for Proposals are available for the City of Philadelphia Commerce Department's Neighborhood Commercial Corridors Programs. 

Here are the basics.

RFP #1. Targeted Corridor Management Program

The Targeted Corridor Revitalization Management Program (TCMP) supports certified “Community Development Based Organizations” (CDBO) to fund full-time corridor managers.  The typical targeted corridor is a four block commercial corridor of at least 100 commercial spaces and the typical contract amount is $75,000. The deadline to apply is Friday, February 7, 2014.

2. Commercial Corridor Cleaning Assistance Program

The Commercial Corridor Cleaning Assistance Program funds organizations to support community service activities such as street and sidewalk litter removal, public safety services and other public space maintenance activities in order to enable businesses to provide needed goods, services and employment opportunities to residents. The proposed services must be part of a commercial corridor strategy that includes activities such as assistance to existing businesses, business recruitment, beautification, storefront improvements, and corridor promotions. The deadline to apply is Thursday, February 27, 2014.

For more information and to apply visit

Monday, January 6, 2014

Will 2014 be the year that the independently-owned film theater dies?

2014 is a year that will change the dynamics of downtown forever. From here on out, first-run films will only be distributed via digital cinema projection, or DCP. So if your local theater does not have digital capability, which according to a recent NYTimes article ["Small Theaters in Adirondacks Face Choice in Switch to Digital: Pay or Perish",12/25/13] costs $65,000 per screen, staying in business will be nearly impossible.
The Central Cinema in Seattle successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign
and raised over $60,000 from over 1,000 backers. 

Economic Impact on Downtown's
Simply put, if a theater does not make the transition, they will not be able to show films. And without films, there is no potential for revenue. As one crowdsource campaign to fund digital projection for the Rialto Theatre in Grayling, MI put it, "We have a simple choice: convert to digital projection or close."
These closures can be the death knell of a local commercial district. These theaters not only show films, they are also important community gathering places, hosting many community events and activities year round. Yet changes the change in film distribution will affect many independently-owned theaters, but the statistics are not in yet and so still don't know how many theaters will close as a result of this change. A 2010 study by the American for the Arts of the impact of this requirement in the Adirondacks found that that 60 percent of commercial chain theaters have made the switch, but 100 percent of Adirondack theaters (13) are independent and cannot afford to upgrade. The study also analyzed the overall impact on the Adirondack economy and found the following:

Economic Impact of Theater Closures on the Adirondack, NY Economy*
  • Loss of over 110 jobs 
  • Loss of over $11.4 million* spent above and beyond ticket purchases in communities (at restaurants, taverns, etc.) by the nearly half million attendees 
  • Loss of community gathering venues, affordable entertainment for families and people on fixed incomes, loss of indoor activities for resident and visitor populations when the weather is inclement, loss of community events often donated by the theaters 
* based on American for the Arts 2010 Arts & Prosperity Study

How will Theater's Raise Funds? 
Distributors are offering financing packages (covering approximately 50 percent of the cost of the projectors), but theaters will lose control content and will be required to pay a monthly projector maintenance fee ($4,000 per projector per month). They will also still be required to cover the costs upfront and get paid back over time based on distributor savings in shipping.
What about the banks? There is always the bank...right? Well, not really. We are doing some work in the Central District in Seattle and the Central Cinema, a local movie house that recently succeeded in raising $60,000 for their DCP upgrade, and they outlined the lending situation quite well:
"If we do not make our funding goal then we will have to find another way of making the DCP conversion happen. In the current economy the banks are still quite hard to work with and equipment lease deals are approaching usury. An upgrade of this size is too large to put on our line of credit and credit card rates are out of the question. We may be able to work out a loan arrangement eventually but the best option is still to have the fans of the Cinema help us with this Kickstarter."
So increasingly many are turning to crowdsource funding, and one of the most popular options is A search for "digital projection" on Kickstarter yields 211 projects, 5 of them currently live. Turning to the community is sometimes the only way to go, especially as bank lending remains tight. In the Adirondacks in New York, a non-profit created a "Go Digital or Go Dark" campaign that allows contributors to donate to theater of their choice in one of then communities. The goal, to raise $2.18 million to support the conversation of dozens of community theaters to DCP.

To App or Not to App?

Author Kristen Wilke is a Project Manager at Larisa Ortiz Associates

It is hard for me to imagine figuring out what to do and where to shop in a new city without the help of my iPhone. I choose my hotel based on proximity to restaurants that get good reviews, and pick my routes with the help of apps that will tell me which streets have nice shops with local character (because gifts from the airport just don't cut it). If there's a neighborhood where businesses aren't on Google Maps and restaurants aren't listed on Yelp, chances are I won't know to go there.

Some cities and commercial district organizations have developed their own Apps to highlight their local businesses and help visitors get around. But this can be resource-intensive, and puts you on the hook for updating content regularly. If you're considering creating an App for your community, first take a look at what is already out there that could save you from doing the work yourself. (And if you have created an App in your community that supports local businesses, let us know about your experience!)

Yelp Monocle. Screenshot via
Looking for a burrito joint open now? An Irish pub nearby? A gas station you can drive to before your tank hits empty? Yelp for your iPhone or iPad is here to help. Use us to search for places to eat, shop, drink, relax and play then read reviews from an active community of locals in the know. 

My thoughts: According to their most recent stats an average of 11.2 million mobile devices use the Yelp app each month. That means there is a pretty good chance that if people are visiting your city and using their smart phone to get around, they are doing it with the help of the Yelp app. Working with local businesses to get on Yelp and build their positive reviews is an easy way to get on visitors' radar. We wrote more about this a few months back. Also, Yelp has a great track record of working with municipalities. Recently, they've partnered with a number of cities to include Department of Health ratings for restaurants' hygiene scores. This is a good sign that the company would be interested in building new partnerships to support local business communities.

Google Maps: Find the best spots in town and the information you need to get there.
My thoughts: One of the first things you see when you go to is a link that says "Put your business on Google Maps". Having local businesses on Google Maps is an easy way to attract customers who are using the app to get around a notice a cluster of businesses in their area, whether or not they are specifically searching for places to shop or dine.

AroundMe quickly identifies your position and allows you to choose the nearest Bank, Bar, Gas Station, Hospital, Hotel, Movie Theatre, Restaurant, Supermarket, Theatre and Taxi. AroundMe shows you a complete list of all the businesses in the category you have tapped on along with the distance from where you are.

My thoughts: Though I hadn't heard of it until today, AroundMe and Yelp are nearly tied for users. There are some differences - AroundMe doesn't have the reviewing element, instead they differentiate themselves by providing information like current movies playing nearby, and making reservations through OpenTable. If it seems like Yelp isn't big in your area, check to see if businesses have made it here. Another similar app is NearMe - but, based in London, some of their terminology (i.e. Petrol Stations and Pubs) takes some getting used to.

Shopikon: As chain stores fill the streetscape the world over, this project is a celebration of the independent retailer. All stores featured on Shopikon have been hand-picked by our editors who have visited thousands of stores, and only the best of the bunch make it into our guide. We evaluate stores based on product selection, atmosphere, dedication to their specialty, and overall shopping experience, making sure that they are all worth your trip!

My thoughts: Great concept, but only available in seven cities (NYC, SF are the only ones in the US). I'm excited to see if they pop up in other US cities. For now, when I want to do this kind of shopping I typically search on Yelp or search for "Best of" listings in local independent papers.

Now is a free iPhone app that lets you see what is hot and happening in your city based on crowd
Now. Photo via
sourced photos. It's a public platform where users can stand as city journalists and share their best experiences happening in their city and see how popular they are.

My thoughts: Now tracks Instagram hashtags by location to show what is happening nearby. For a visitor, this could be a great tool for finding out about local events, sales, and store openings. The app is still young so user numbers are low and it is only available for iPhones.

Other things to consider

  • If you do create an App, how will visitors find out about it? Will they have to see it on a printed guide, or in an ad on a local website? Then it may be unlikely that they find out about it while they're planning their trip. 
  • Go to the App store for your device and type in the name of your city. What results do you get back? Chances are they are from various travel companies you haven't heard of or local sports teams.  Do they have stellar ratings? Probably not. If you're going to spend time designing an App, have a strategy in place to stand out from the crowd.
  • In a (highly unscientific) poll I just conducted among friends, many people stated that they would only download an App if they knew they were going to use it repeatedly. If that isn't the case, they will visit a website that can give the information they are looking for. Think about your target audience - if it is locals, maybe an app is the way to go, but if it is visitors who will only be in town briefly, perhaps a mobile-friendly website is more appropriate. 

For the Top 35 Restaurant Apps, take a look at this infographic from

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Metrics? Performance measurements? Why are we coming up short in the measuring impact department?

It is disheartening, but I continue to read about BID formation efforts that are being challenged by the local business community [see Lake George Business Improvement District uproar, 12/31]. Much of the resistance is based on reasonable concerns by business owners and property owners (who are footing the bill) that their hard earned dollars will be misused - or worse - will undercut their ability to compete and earn a profit. Whether these concerns are misguided or not, they are a powerful call to action that we cannot ignore. Without metrics to determine the impact of BID efforts, criticisms of BIDs will not be based not on fact, but rather on knee-jerk reactions that have little to do with fact-based, return on investment, decision making.

As an industry, this should be a concern for all of us. Failure to define success, in very specific terms, will continue to undercut our ability to utilize Improvement District's as a tool for successful urban transformation. In England, they seem to be ahead of the curve on this issue. I continue to read about Business Improvement Districts throughout the nation increasingly using metrics to evaluate their activities. One increasingly common tactic is a measurement of pedestrian counts, or as they say across the pond, "footfall". Pedestrian counts, or footfall, is an important metric that can tell a commercial district manager the level of pedestrian traffic in a community. Retailers know that pedestrian counts equal sales - so this information is extremely useful for both existing and potential new businesses.

In a recent project in Pittsburgh ["Mount Washington signs up for more customers", 8/12], we decided to incorporate pedestrian counts as a performance metric to determine the impact of new investments in business signage. The results were outstanding and reinforced what businesses were already telling us - pedestrian counts had increased by nearly 30% and as a result so did business. Mount Washington CDC is now fielding requests from other businesses to put up similar signs. The ability to quantify impact is a powerful tool that served to further reinforce the value that Mount Washington CDC brings to the table through its efforts.

A recent article from a local British paper ["Footfall monitors to track town shoppers", 12/31] chronicles a similar recent decision by a local city government to help fund footfall monitors which are "commonly fitted in many managed shopping centres and used to provide intelligence about the numbers and times of visitors, which help to inform marketing strategies and decisions about investment."

As an industry, this is a call to action. We can and must do better to measure the impact of our work. The report requesting funds to the local cabinet in England made the case for footfall monitors very clearly: "the wider town center has no means of evaluation and as a result decisions taken...are not informed and intelligence." This is a significant challenge that we must face head on if we are to ensure that effective BID's are credited with being the change agents they have proven to be in many places...AND to ensure that ineffective BID's are fixed and/or dissolved if need be. No one should be forced to pay for ineffective services, but if you don't measure impact, how do you improve service delivery or even make decisions about improving interventions and the use of limited resources overtime? The short answer is, you can't.

Upcoming NY-NJ Professional Development Opportunity

I'm very excited to be co-teaching a two-day course (January 16th and 17th) on Neighborhood Development Strategies for the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). Professional development opportunities for neighborhood-based community development practitioners are few and far between and this is a wonderful opportunity to meet and network with practitioners from around the nation. My colleagues will be Melissa Kim, Director of Community Economic Development for the Village of Arts and Humanities and Diane Lupke, President of Lupke Associates. The course will be held at the Hilton Newark Penn Station, 1048 Raymond Boulevard, Newark, NJ. 

This practitioner-driven course uses the case study method to complement current neighborhood development theory. Participants will learn how to identify the major neighborhood actors, their objectives, and strategies for redevelopment, in addition to understanding the process for creating a strategic economic development plan to meet the neighborhood development goals. Specifically, this course will examine social capital (e.g., linkages, networks, talent, etc.), environmental capital (e.g., stewardship, residual management, etc.) and economic capital (e.g., investment and reinvestment) facing distressed neighborhoods and offer solutions to address local needs.

For more information go to the website, or the page by clicking here.