Public relations nightmare? Service district withdraws request

Allegations of botched handling have delayed a proposal for a slicker Downtown Mall that was to be presented City Council earlier this week.
A letter from the City to downtown property owners left many fuming about their taxes going up and failing to see how a Downtown Service District will improve their lives in the seemingly already thriving area.
The Downtown Property Owners Council, or DPOC, was seeking an additional tax assessment to create the district, but withdrew its request May 20, the same day it was scheduled to present it to City Council.
“It’s being postponed because the City ordinance doesn’t reflect what we intend to do with downtown,” explains Tyler Sewell, executive director of the DPOC, the 50-member group pushing for the new district and new tax.
The DPOC envisions an independent body responding more quickly to downtown business needs than the traditional city bureaucracy, whether with signs, lighting, or cheapo guerilla marketing. Working title of the concept: “Destination Downtown.”
"When you step into downtown," says Sewell, "we want you to know you’re standing in a unique and different place.”
To that end, Destination Downtown would fund roving ambassadors help the lost and befuddled, providing directions, movie times, or helping with restaurant reservations.
DPOC president Colin Rolph compares the roving ambassador to a hotel concierge.  “I’m a big fan of the Four Seasons' concierge,” he says.
The first alleged sign of controversy was ignited by the City's May 8 letter that informed downtown property owners in the district they could be assessed an extra 20 cents per $100 of value. The letter didn't exclude residences.
“I don’t know where this thing with residences came from,” says Rolph. “No single-family homes or condos are included.” Neither are churches or nonprofits, he says.
Capital improvements are another expenditure the service district won’t take on. “We will not be rebuilding the mall for the City of Charlottesville,” says Rolph.
Even some potential supporters seem unsure what the Downtown Service District is about, and that confusion and misinformation concern Sewell. “If [property owners] are going to be worried and confused, we want them to have the facts,” says Sewell.
Mike Williams, who owns a building on the Downtown Mall, thinks the fee-for-service aspect of the service district is probably a good idea. “It’s the same with trash tags,” he says. “If you have a lot of cans, you pay more.”
“I think it’s silly,” says Daedalus Bookstore owner Sandy McAdams. “I hate collective decisions. I’m certainly going to try to not pay.”
Developer Gabe Silverman says he doesn’t know enough about the service district yet, but its potential to respond quickly is a plus. On the other hand, he doesn’t think the district, which stretches from High to Garrett streets, and 10th to McIntire, goes far enough. “West Main, the University and Downtown-– that’s a business district,” says Silverman.
Others, like Bob Archer at Bob’s Wheel Alignment on East Main, think the proposed district is too big. “Enhanced lighting, a roving ambassador-– what’s that going to do for a car repair shop?” asks Archer, who estimates additional assessment would cost him about $5,000 a year.
Over at Charlottesville Barbering and Styling on East Jefferson, James Shifflett complains he’s already paying too much in taxes. “Tell me one thing it’s going to do for me,” he demands, his voice raising. “I’ve got a customer now. Come by when I’ve got more time.”
Bill Nitchmann, who owns the Raven Gallery and Albemarle First Bank buildings, says he’d pass what he figures to be an 18 percent tax increase onto his tenants. He’s also concerned about raising money for a private organization to use. “I don’t know who these people are who are going to run it,” he says. 
And Nitchmann is convinced that if the Downtown Service District raised $300,000, one third of that money would go to administrative costs.
Sewell says the costs haven't been calculated yet, but guesses that only one administrator would be paid. And he quashes speculation he’s creating a job for himself. “I’m an employee of the Downtown Property Owner’s Council. I will not apply for the job.”
A new, nonprofit organization would be formed with its own board. “It’s supposed to be unbureaucratic,” says Sewell. 
So what would a service district do for a business like Bob’s Wheel Alignment? “It’ll increase his property values," says Sewell. "That’s a positive thing.”
For now, the proposed ordinance goes back to the drawing board. “Certainly there were differences of opinion in details of the ordinance,” says City spokesman Maurice Jones, “but we will be working closely with DPOC over the next week to produce an ordinance that’s worthy of public consideration, as well as Council’s.” The revised proposal goes to City Council June 3.
Despite a rocky start, Sewell thinks in the long run, the results of the service district will be amazing.
“It’ll speak to how commercial property owners, residents, business owners, the City and City Council can work together,” he says.
That will be amazing. Stay tuned.

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