The city of Vancouver is pursuing a “tool” that could help downtown businesses raise funds to fill the service gaps between what the owners want to see and what the city can provide. But much is left to be determined, including how it will be governed, the rate businesses would pay, the services provided and the service area.
“As the downtown has grown and evolved over the last several years post-recession, we’ve started to explore what tools might be at our disposal to address the specific needs of the downtown core,” City Manager Eric Holmes said.
A downtown improvement area is similar to a business improvement district: a governing body made up of ratepayers — in this instance, business owners — that determines the assessed fee and how the revenue will be spent.
“Downtown is changing and that means the management of downtown could possibly change as well and respond to that,” said Teresa Brum, Vancouver’s economic development division manager.
In the last five years, 47 new restaurants and bars have opened downtown, and additional restaurants, hotels and apartment units are on the way as development on The Waterfront Vancouver continues.
Things that could be funded include expanded ride-share between parking lots and the downtown area, using revenue collected via the tool. Similar programs in other cities provide other possibilities. In Tacoma, for instance, funds are used for cleaning and maintenance, while in Spokane, they are used for safety and security. In Seattle, funds are used for homeless outreach.
At this point, the city has begun outreach to many of the downtown businesses and established a 16-member steering committee to provide input on the project’s potential. Vancouver has also hired a consultant, BDS Planning and Urban Design, to help guide the development process.
But ultimately, any proposal must come from the ratepayers.
“In this case, they actually assess themselves,” said John Collum, principal economic development planner. “They choose what projects they want to fund, and then they set up the downtown improvement area.”
The council would consider the proposal and after a public hearing process, approve the formation of a ratepayer board and organizational setup. In most cases, Collum said, the day-to-day operations of the area are managed by a downtown association. The board serves as the governing body — of which the city is a member as a downtown employer — and approves the annual budget and project. The city serves as fee assessor and distributes the organization’s expenses.
If planning continues on track, Collum said a proposal could be before the council this fall after further outreach to the downtown community.