Kevin Valine

Second look at benefit district

I wrote a story this week about how the city and a group of downtown interests are trying to create what is called a community benefit district to generate money for downtown improvements.

If the district is formed, all property owners in the district – including government, churches and nonprofits – would pay assessments for such services as more frequent sweeping and steam cleaning of sidewalks, more landscaping, dealing with the homeless and panhandlers, and marketing and promotions.

The group working with the city includes some heavy hitters, such as Mayor Garrad Marsh, attorneys Dave Gianelli and Bart Barringer, Gallo Center for the Arts CEO Lynn Dickerson and Stanislaus Business Alliance CEO David White.

There is a lot of work to be done, including a vote among property owners and approval from the City Council, before the district becomes a reality.

Downtown advocates say it has lots of potential, but it empties out in the evenings when workers in government buildings, law firms and offices go home. It also has too many vacant storefronts. These advocates say the city does not have the money to give downtown the TLC it deserves.

Here are two points that were not included in this week’s story:

Tracy has had a community benefit district called the Tracy City Center Association. Association President Dino Margaros said the district has not only resulted in a cleaner, safer, better promoted and more bustling downtown, it has provided intangible benefits.

They include greater unity and cohesion among property owners, merchants, the city and other downtown interests. “It’s put everyone under one umbrella,” he said.

Tracy’s district is just a fraction of the size of Modesto’s proposed district. Margaros said his district has an annual budget of about $350,000, with about $160,000 of that from assessments. He said the rest comes from grants and special events put on by the district, such as wine tastings.

“It’s changed downtown,” he said. “The downtown you are seeing now is much different from what was here before. We’ve had 20 new businesses come in and a number of new restaurants. Property owners are seeing the value. But it takes a buy-in from the property owners, the merchants. They all need to be on the same page. If they are not, it won’t work.”

The Tracy City Center Association was created for a five-year term in 2009. In December, association property owners overwhelmingly voted to extend the association for an additional 10 years.

Here’s the second point: Modesto already has something in place to help downtown. It’s called the Downtown Improvement District, and it was formed decades ago. It receives payments from more than 600 businesses and has an annual budget of about $170,000. Its services include cleaning sidewalks and alleys, maintaining the trash receptacles and removing graffiti.

DID board President David Boring – who also is a member of the group trying to create a community benefit district – said the DID board considered trying to ramp up the Downtown Improvement District. But he said that appeared to be problematic.

He said the DID board has endorsed the effort to create a community benefit district. Boring said the Downtown Improvement District and a community benefit district can co-exist and provide complementary services.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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