Business improvement districts not easier to form, but still sought
By Risa Polansky
Legislation that would have made it easier to establish business improvement districts in Florida died in the legislature last month — but plans to create more of the self-taxing districts continue locally as municipal budget cuts loom.
Potential targets include Coconut Grove, the Miami Modern historic district on Biscayne Boulevard, the Design District and areas of Doral.
Members of a business improvement district tax themselves to fund area improvements and marketing efforts above what local governments can provide.
Impending funding cuts mean governments could soon be providing less.
But the districts are difficult to set up.
Florida statutes require that to instate a self-taxing district, a majority of property owners within the proposed boundaries must vote in favor.
All absent votes count as opposition.
With many property owners or trusts based out of state or outside the country, they're difficult to reach, said Mari Molina, executive director of the Coral Gables Business Improvement District, which was voted in for a third five-year term last year.
Voter apathy can be a major roadblock, she said. "It's hard to get people to engage. A lot of people don't vote."
Measures tacked onto a bill passed by the house but never considered by the senate would have changed the law to allow a majority of those who actually vote in the election to create a district.
Local leaders plan to make another push to legislators — but in Coconut Grove, property owners won't wait until then to form their district.
"Not with the economy in recession," said David Collins, executive director of the Coconut Grove Business Improvement Committee. "This is the time to get moving on it."
Also still on the table: plans to study the MiMo historic district on Biscayne Boulevard and the Design District as potential areas for business improvement districts, said Marcus A. James, a project manager for City of Miami economic initiatives.
With government spending cuts on the horizon, he said, now is the time to look toward supplementing services.
The City of Doral also has feelers out to learn more about improvement districts as a new fiscal year approaches.
"We're just asking around and trying to get information," said Public Information Officer Christina Baguer. "It's a time to start looking at things we might want to do in the upcoming budget year."
Possible areas include Finger Lakes and the city's tile district.
As the only business improvement district in the area, "Constantly we're getting phone calls from even faraway places in Florida," said Ms. Molina of Coral Gables.
"The baseline services may be slipping in some areas" due to government spending cuts, she said. Businesses may need to take matters into their own hands "in order to keep areas economically viable."
Coconut Grove property owners have been working toward forming an improvement district for years.
The city formed the Business Improvement Committee in 2004 with the intent that it would grow into a full-blown district to improve area conditions and promote the Grove.
Fearing difficulty in securing enough votes to make it happen under current state law, the committee in December hoped to ask city commissioners to vote to establish the district.
In that case, taxes collected could fund only capital projects.
The plan fell through, and the risky "straight-up vote" is in property owners' future, Mr. Collins said, probably within eight weeks.
"I'm absolutely confident" it will pass, he said.
And the Grove sorely needs it.
Business there is flagging compared to areas such as South Beach, he said, on top of the lagging economy.
"We have the Grove, which was being out-competed by its competitors; then we have the national economy, which is keeping people's money in their wallets," he said. "Something has got to change."
But the City of Miami alone can't provide the neighborhood with the facelift, security and marketing efforts it needs, and the recession lifting probably won't solve the Grove's problems, officials say.
"We don't think that, cyclically, we'll come back by ourselves," Mr. Collins said. "It adds up to a time that you've got to reach up and help yourself on this one."