March 7, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
Pittsburgh has one.
Trenton has one. New York City has at least 50.
New Haven, Manchester, Stamford and Bridgeport all have special
services districts, too. In fact, Hartford already has one on
Park Street, but on a much different scale. Now, discussions
are beginning again about whether downtown Hartford should have
such a district, too.
The idea of a district is simple: Property owners come together
and agree to pay more money for targeted special services that
they control, from cleaner sidewalks to more hospitable streets
to self-promotion and marketing.
The result is what one downtown
advocate calls an enhanced experience - including litter crews,
easily identifiable "ambassadors" to
downtown, and better, more usable information on retail and parking.
"You get a higher quality neighborhood," said
Austin Jordan, executive director of Hartford Guides Inc.
The idea came and went in
downtown Hartford in 2000, rejected by a few unwilling large
property owners. But now it's back - with support from Business
for Downtown Hartford, Hartford Proud & Beautiful,
and Jordan's organization.
And the major property owners
downtown have also expressed a willingness to explore their
options, said R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel,
head of the MetroHartford Alliance. There may or may not be an
appetite in the business community for such a district, he said.
But at least there is an appetite for a serious discussion.
"I think it's worthy of study because of what's happened
in the past five or six years," Griebel said, pointing to
millions of dollars in private and public investment in downtown,
as well as a change in the city charter that made for a strong-mayor
form of government. "This is a different time, and an appropriate
time, to review the possibilities."
"There's lots of good ideas out there - I've got three
desks full of good ideas," Jordan said. "What we need
is the money to make them happen."
More than 1,000 special services
districts exist nationwide, according to the International
Downtown Association in Washington. Some stick to the core "clean and safe" functions,
while others expand to include more community economic development
In Trenton, what began with
a core mission of "clean and
safe" has in almost 20 years evolved into "a project-driven
economic development organization," said Matt Bergheiser,
executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association. "We've
acquired and renovated buildings, we own and run a business,
and many of our programs are fueled by the arts."
Of its roughly $1 million annual operating budget, 60 percent
comes from assessments and state payments in lieu of taxes -
like Hartford, Trenton is a state capital with lots of state-owned,
At the Pittsburgh Downtown
Partnership, the focus has long been "clean
and safe," said interim Executive Director Nancy Hart.
"Even though the larger property owners are paying more
than the smaller property owners, it's proven beneficial to everyone
because the whole city benefits," she said. Customers feel
safer walking downtown, employees feel safer walking to work
downtown, and that means attracting new people, she said.
Now, more than a decade after its inception, the district has
been reapproved once by the 524 property owners of the district
who pay tax based only on the value of their land, not on the
value of their buildings.
Of the district's roughly $3 million budget, about $1.2 million
comes from assessments.
"For every dollar that the [district] gives us, we raise
an additional $1.84," Hart said. "We leverage their
money to get other money to do things for downtown."
The need in Hartford for a special services district is easily
quantifiable, said Ron Morneault, president of Business for Downtown
Hartford. As it stands, hospitality and cleanliness programs
are underfunded, Morneault said.
"What's the alternative?" he asked. "The
alternative is to have no services, which is what you have
now. Your alternative is not good."
The enhancements that a special services district can bring
will attract new retail, Morneault said.
"It's important to do the job right, to bring the services
to bear, and to finish the thing off right," he said. "I
think it will make a big difference downtown."
The annual operating budget
for downtown's district could be between $1 million and $1.5
million, with 60 percent of that coming from the 143 property
owners in the proposed district, said Michael Zaleski, of Hartford
Proud & Beautiful. The
district has an assessed value of roughly $560 million, he said.
"Now is the time to seriously look at this model as another
way of building on the investment that has taken place in downtown
over the last couple of years," Zaleski said. "Now
more than ever."
But Zaleski and others realize that they have a delicate job
"I want to emphasize that the majority of people are skeptical
... in the good sense of the word," said Griebel of the
MetroHartford Alliance. "Not because they're opposed to
the idea, but, as you can well imagine, any taxpayer who even
hears of the idea that they're being asked to pay additional
money [for services] wants to know why."
Should it progress beyond the thinking stages, the proposal
will have to jump some hurdles. First, its backers must get the
nod of the city council to hold a referendum of the district's
property owners. And, in order to pass, that referendum must
get two majorities: a majority of property owners must vote in
favor of the plan, and a majority of the owners who own half
of the property value in the district must vote in favor, as
Mayor Eddie A. Perez said
he, too, is open to the concept and that the city supports
the discussion. "It's happening all
across the country, and they work," he said. But he also
recognizes that there are significant hurdles, he said.
"Before any proposal is put together," Perez said, "you've
got to have a lot of buy-in."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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