When people are sprawling further away from city centers to shop and eat, downtown businesses need to stay competitive. Seattle is using a Metropolitan Improvement District (often known as Business Improvement Districts) to make its downtown a better place for businesses, residents, and shoppers.
Most large cities in the United States employ Business Improvement Districts. There are over 1,200 in North America, and as many as sixty-seven in New York alone. Seattle has six, with its largest recently expanded to cover 285 blocks over the downtown core.
An Improvement District uses an allocation of funds for specific purposes, and is financed primarily through assessments on downtown properties. Smaller towns may use the funds to provide cleaning, beautification, and safety, and larger cities are able to provide much more. With a budget of over $6 million, Seattle’s Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) provides a host of services, including Destination Marketing, Business Development and Market Research. The MID also implements community events, such as the popular “Out to Lunch” concert series. The result is a more inviting and vibrant atmosphere for residents and tourists, and (naturally) a more attractive area for business. Benefits also include increased property values, improved safety, lower vacancy, and outreach for the homeless.
Improvement districts are effective because they use a self-help funding mechanism. Seattle’s Metropolitan Improvement District is managed by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), a private-public partnership. Ultimately, most operations are dependent upon city approval, although the DSA is given autonomy regarding assessments, changes in boundaries, management, finance, and other operations. To ensure that the area’s best interest is kept in mind, The MID is governed by a diverse group of ratepayers that are either appointed or elected. This form of governance is effective in promoting best practices and creating strong public-private relationships.
Because of its management model, Business Improvement Districts facilitate cooperation and stewardship. They are not implemented without 60% (or often higher) approval, and every dollar spent has direct results. It is a great way to enhance municipal services, without raising taxes.
Urban planners see downtown economic strength and vibrancy as an essential. People love to see their downtown improve, and the businesses there love to see it become more competitive. Because of their autonomy and effectiveness, Improvement Districts are an increasingly popular model for catalyzing economic development.
Would you like to see Improvement Districts continue to proliferate? What other ways can we enhance economic and community development in Downtown areas?
Credits: Images by the author and linked to sources. Data linked to sources.