Durham County

Downtown Durham players tell council: Don’t break up business district

The painted slogan promoting downtown Durham on a brick building seen by passers-by on on Ramseur Street in the downtown Durham, NC loop in 2013. It was the brainchild of the Downtown Durham, Inc. staff, which is supported now by the Business Improvement District tax.
The painted slogan promoting downtown Durham on a brick building seen by passers-by on on Ramseur Street in the downtown Durham, NC loop in 2013. It was the brainchild of the Downtown Durham, Inc. staff, which is supported now by the Business Improvement District tax. hlynch@newsobserver.com

A who’s who of downtown Durham stepped up Tuesday night against a proposal to break up a tax district that funds downtown revitalization.

Leaders from American Underground, American Tobacco Campus, Art of Cool Festival, restaurant owners and residents told the City Council to keep the special district intact.

The council held a public hearing on a request by Measurement Inc. to remove 21 parcels – seven buildings plus parking lots – from the Downtown Business Improvement District.

Taxes from the BID pay for marketing, maintenance and the blue-shirted downtown “ambassadors” to make the district more appealing. Money goes to Downtown Durham Inc. to pull it off, but Measurement Inc. wants out.

In the end, council members acted by not acting at all. The law only required them to hold a public hearing.

Mayor Bill Bell pointed out that taxes go to things that all residents might not use, like buses and swimming pools.

“For me, fortunately the way government operates is that taxpayers don’t have much of a choice what they pay for and don’t pay for,” he said.

“If you didn’t have the BID, and these persons cleaning up outside your properties, what would downtown Durham look like?” he asked. “You can’t pick and choose how you want your taxes spent.”

The BID, also called a municipal service district, is a mix of commercial, retail and residential areas. It was formed in 2012 to “enhance the appearance and feel” of downtown with a goal to encouraging economic development, attracting visitors and competing with other cities.

Bryan Scherich, director of real estate for Measurement Inc., argued that the company doesn’t use or need the BID’s cleaning and safety services because it has its own.

Measurement Inc. owner Hank Scherich said Downtown Durham Inc.’s “Find Your Cool” brand, part of the marketing for the district, is not the type of slogan for business occupants of Measurement Inc. properties. Its downtown properties include the old BC Powder building, which was founded in Durham. Most of its buildings are around Washington Street downtown.

Opposition to Measurement Inc.’s proposal said even if the company didn’t use services, it still benefited from BID services all around it. DDI CEO and President Nicole Thompson urged the city to leave it intact.

Michael Goodmon, a vice president of Capitol Broadcasting, which owns the American Tobacco Campus, said DDI “has been critical for what all of us have done downtown ... While scope and focus might have changed, the critical mission still there,” he said. Indeed, Hank Scherich once served on the DDI board. Scherich said that when DDI started, a lot of businesses contributed to get it going, including his. But that was before the BID was passed and drew a tax to support it.

“The BID’s not about keeping score,” Goodmon said. “It’s about success of the whole downtown.”

Adam Klein, chief strategist at American Underground, said downtown Durham has come a long way but still has a long way to go.

Larry Tilley of the family-owned ACME Plumbing Co. on Foster Street remembers downtown Durham in the 1980s. Downtown started moving forward with DDI, he said, and has seen dramatic improvements since his and other businesses hired their own security in the ’80s. The BID has been a great benefit for the area, Tilley said.

Alice Sharpe, who owns a condo on Rigsbee Avenue, opposed Measurement Inc.’s request to leave the BID but still credited Scherich with “his early belief that downtown is a good place for business.”

“While we have come a long way, downtown is not there yet, by a long shot,” Sharpe said. “If we judge ourselves by where we come from, anything looks good.”

Seth Gross, who owns three businesses downtown including Bull City Burger and Brewery, touted the downtown ambassadors.

“We love being the fabric of Durham, and a lot of that fabric is turquoise,” said Gross, referring to the ambassadors’ blue shirts.

Cicely Mitchell, downtown resident and co-founder of Art of Cool, said that it would be difficult for Art of Cool Festival to deliver the same level of cleanliness and quality without the ambassadors. She lived in West Village for four years, and said that extra eyes and ears that the ambassadors offer are always needed.

Durham City Council member Steve Schewel said that while he wouldn’t supporting removing Measurment properties from the BID, “it’s certainly up for debate whether we have a BID.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

What it costs

The city charges an extra tax of 7 cents for every $100 of assessed value for property inside the Business Improvement District.

Measurement Inc., which owns 21 parcels of land in the BID paid a little more than $33,000 last year in taxes to support it.

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