Absentee campaign gets Gables business district renewed
By April M. Havens
An effort to get absentee property owners to return ballots helped give the Coral Gables Business Improvement District another five years of life last week.
The vote to renew the district included an expansion of the district one block north to include Giralda Avenue. The renewal was the second for the 10-year-old district.
After "a lot of nail-biting," executive director Mari Molina said, she was "ecstatic and humbled that the vote passed by such a large margin."
Ms. Molina said tensions were high in the beginning because many downtown Gables property owners live outside the state, making it more difficult to reach them and let them know the purpose of the district. Her nervousness came from a state voting provision that each unreturned ballot was to be counted as a vote against renewing the district.
"Five years ago, I just went around to the businesses and talked to the owners," Ms. Molina said. "But that has changed."
This year, the district counted more on the property managers to call their owners and explain the importance of returning the ballot in support of the organization, she said.
The district, funded through a self-imposed tax, pays for supplemental services such as advertising, promotions and special events in an effort to increase business downtown. It is bound east to west by Douglas and LeJeune roads and north to south by Giralda and Andalusia avenues.
Of 189 ballots mailed to owners, the district garnered me 105 yes votes and 20 no votes. Seven were invalidated due to signature errors, and unreturned ballots were counted as no votes.
Expanding the district to include Giralda Avenue added 24 property owners to the district, Ms. Molina said. But the district is still trying to tabulate how many businesses it will add because some of the owners who were members before the expansion also have businesses on Giralda. The final tally "will probably be quadruple the number of merchants," Ms. Molina said.
Now that the vote has passed, Ms. Molina said, she is developing a new strategic plan for the district.
"Our major goals are to continue some of our bigger projects like the Miracle Mile streetscape project," Ms. Molina said.
This project seeks to replace sidewalks along Miracle Mile, which could involve altering parking, expanding the sidewalks, fixing drainage problems and re-landscaping the area.
The Business Improvement District's greatest role in the sidewalk project is minimizing the merchants' costs, Ms. Molina said. The organization has been working with the city for more than three years to minimize those costs and to find other funding for the $6 million to $10 million project, she said.
Since the process will be "very painful" for retailers, Ms. Molina said the district would try to get the work done during the summer and at night.
The district will also focus resources on additional landscaping projects along "restaurant row" on Giralda Avenue, but the organization's top goals should be pinpointed within 30-60 days, Ms. Molina said.
One of the organization's greatest accomplishments so far has been implementing a centralized valet parking system on Miracle Mile, which Ms. Molina says has become the model for valet systems in other cities. The service has parked more than 95,000 cars in the last year, using three centrally located stations. On average the service parks 4,500 cars a month.
Over the past 10 years, the business district has turned downtown Coral Gables into a more vibrant community, merchants say.
"It's like night and day when comparing the downtown Coral Gables area pre and post the BID," said Martin Lynch, owner of John Martin's Irish Pub. "The BID acts as one voice for us all, dealing with any issues the merchants may have. … They act as a liaison with all marketing efforts."
Mindy McIlroy, vice president of Terranova Corp., said vacancy is limited and prices are going up for space in the district.
"Retail vacancy in Coral Gables is at 2.2%," she said, noting that rents range from $31 to $50 a square foot. Three years ago, the high on Miracle Mile was $30 to $32, she said.
"Miracle Mile is still evolving," she said. "Many of the retail spaces on the Mile are still under old, long-term leases. New flashy retailers and restaurants alongside older, tired-looking stores give the Mile block-to-block variability in its retail vitality."
The area between Ponce de Leon Boulevard and LeJeune Road is exhibiting the most vitality, she said. Rents are going as high as $50 per square foot in this western area.
"The eastern portion of Miracle Mile has been revitalizing as well, most notably with the addition of trendy restaurants Tarpon Bend and Max's Grille," she said. "Undoubtedly, one thing making a big difference is all the new condo construction on and around Miracle Mile, which is bringing both a critical mass and the 24-hour activity that is key to urban vibrancy."
Since last summer, eight restaurants, 13 retailers, and seven miscellaneous businesses have opened within the district. Another seven restaurants, eight retailers, and two other businesses are slated to open within the next year.