News

Business Improvement District passes vote in downtown Lebanon

Written by John Latimer/Lebanon Daily News | Jan 20, 2016 9:23 AM
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Commercial and residential property owners in a roughly 15-square block area of downtown Lebanon have narrowly approved designating the zone as a Business Improvement District. Looking south on 8th street, the Lebanon Farmer's Market is inside the proposed area. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota, Lebanon Daily)

Pending City Council approval, the next step will be to hire a downtown manager to guide it.

(Lebanon) -- Commercial and residential property owners in a roughly 15-square block area of downtown Lebanon have narrowly approved designating the zone as a Business Improvement District in the hopes of revitalizing its economy.

Mayor Sherry Capello announced Tuesday that owners of 63 percent of the 360 properties in the area approved of establishing the Business Improvement District and 37 percent opposed it. Opposition from 40 percent of the property owners was needed to defeat it. It will be in effect for the next five years when another vote will be taken to renew it.

A Business Improvement District, or BID, is a state-sanctioned program used successfully in many cities to attract visitors to an area by making improvements and offering services that go beyond those provided by municipal taxes. Examples include things like sidewalk cleaning, special events, property marketing and hiring weekend ambassadors to provide information and an added level of security to downtown visitors.

The supplemental services are designed to improve the downtown environment and are coordinated by a downtown manager. The manager and other program costs are paid for with fees assessed to commercial property owners in the BID. In the case of Lebanon's BID proposal, owners of commercial properties, including rental units, will be assessed a fee of 2 mills or a minimum of $250.

Establishment of a BID in downtown Lebanon was started by Capello several years ago but began in earnest last year after she appointed a steering committee to define its operational parameters and territorial boundaries, which include:

  • Cumberland Street, from 4th Street to 11th Street.
  • The north side of Chestnut Street, from South Seventh Street to South Partridge Street.
  • The south side of Chestnut Street, from South Seventh Street to South Ninth Street.
  • The north side of Willow Street, from North Cherry Street to North Seventh Street.
  • The south side of Willow Street from North Cherry to North Partridge Street.

After a public hearing in November, City Council approved the BID proposal triggering a 40-day period in which all property owners -  including both the commercial property owners who will pay an annual fee and the residential and non-profit property owners who are exempt from the fee - were given an opportunity to formally object to it. Objecting required providing a notarized signature from the property-owner to the city. A non-response was considered a yes vote.

When the 40-day period concluded last Tuesday, a total of 146 objections had been registered, two more than needed to defeat the program, Capello said. However, when votes were reviewed by the steering committee over the following several days, 13 objections were disqualified on various grounds.

Eleven of the disqualified objections came from properties with multiple owners that did not include the signatures of each, as was clearly stated in the voting directions, said Capello.

The other two objections, one from a corporation and the other from a non-profit, were disqualified because they did not include the signature of the board president, the mayor said.

Several other questionable objections that could have justifiably been thrown out on a technicality, however, were counted in the final tally, she added.

"Representatives of the steering committee reviewed the objections filed and 13 were not valid in accordance with the state statute and policies formed by the committee," Capello said. "Reasonable objections filed with incorrect information or missing property tax numbers were counted. However, if multiple property owners of a single property did not sign, they did not count it."

The outcome was welcome news for Capello who since taking office in 2010 has been advocating establishing a program to spur economic growth in Lebanon. She said no one has offered a better proposal than the BID and bristles at criticism that the process wasn't transparent.

"I want the downtown to be successful," she said. "I've been working six years trying to educate people and move the city forward. We started in March 2010 at HACC with our vision and power statement. We created a tagline and logo. I believe we can be better than we are. When you ask people with different opinions for an alternative, they don't come up with anything viable. Doing nothing is not an option."

Having a BID program and a downtown manager to coordinate it will make the city eligible for more state and foundation grants that are going to other communities that already have one, the mayor added.

"We cannot compete and keep up with the resources other downtowns have if we don't have a downtown manager in place to apply for these grants," she said.

While many commercial property owners favored establishing a BID, as did the Community of Lebanon Association and the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, some did not, including a handful that visited property owners in the company of a notary public to assist in gathering votes in opposition to it.

Realtor Ted Hummel, who owns property in the BID and attempted to organize opposition to the program, said he was disappointed with the outcome.

"It looks like we had enough to defeat it, but they basically disqualified it on a technicality," he said. "When you consider you needed a notarized signature to object, that to me seems like a pretty strong showing of people not wanting it to be enacted."

The only recourse, Hummel said, would be to challenge the process in court, which would be an expensive proposition for both the city and the BID opponents.

"It's disappointing news," he said. "It is as bad as health care (Affordable Care Act) passing without a Republican vote. That will definitely divide the community. I think is should be re-looked at."

Efforts are already underway to heal whatever divide may exist, said Capello, who noted that the steering committee has already met with some vocal opponents of the BID to hear their concerns, like installing better lighting and security cameras in the BID .

"We've generated a list of their concerns and we are sincere in saying we will try to address them the best way we can," she said. "I've already met with Met-Ed to discuss the possibility of increasing the wattage and additional lighting. And City Council already has money in the budget for a security camera feasibility study."

The fee assessed to the commercial and rental property owners in the BID will raise about $115,000 annually to cover operational expenses, including hiring a downtown manager who will coordinate programs and activities to market the area. The salary and benefit package for that position is expected to total about $50,000.

The process of hiring the downtown manager will fall to the board of directors of Lebanon 2000 - the Community of Lebanon Association's non-profit foundation - which will serve as the Neighborhood Improvement District Management Association, or NIDMA, in charge of overseeing the BID program.

That selection process should begin shortly, Capello said. But before it can, the BID must officially be approved by the five-member City Council, most of whom have voiced their support for it. Council meets Thursday night for a workshop session and is expected to adopt the BID when it meets for its voting meeting on Monday night.


This article comes to us through a partnership between WITF and Lebanon Daily News.

Published in Lebanon, News

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