BY KEVIN LITTEN REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN Monday, September 26, 2011
HARTFORD -- For those familiar with the capital city's downtown four years ago and how it looks today, the contrast is nothing short of striking.
Streets and alleys are clean and free of litter, flowers are planted on nearly every median, and the handbills, leaflets and graffiti that used to mar newspaper and mail boxes are gone. It's not just that the litter and graffiti is gone -- it all gets cleaned up seven days a week by a crew of six who patrol for trash alongside a separate team of security officers who work closely with police to curb crime.
Those services are the most visible components of the city's relatively new Hartford Business Improvement District, an organization formed in 2007 that brought together 40 blocks of property owners for one purpose: Ensuring downtown Hartford is safe, clean and well-marketed.
It's one of more than 1,000 such districts nationwide, and among 13 "special services districts" in the state that charge property owners extra fees for new services if property owners consent. In Hartford, the extra fee has meant one mill added to the tax rate that property owners already pay, which raises about three-quarters of the Hartford BID's $1.2 million budget.
Convincing property owners to pay that extra tax was no small feat -- it came after plenty of wrangling and convincing, but it has quickly become a well-supported venture after property owners began seeing results.
Property owners pay one mill more than everyone else in the city, which translates to an average of $421 per property for the 75 buildings with the lowest assessments; the top five highest assessed property owners paid an average of $70,880 each. Hartford's business improvement district is funded at $1.2 million, with about three-quarters coming from property owners.
To create a special services district under state law -- it is known nationally as a business improvement district -- two things must take place: City Council must approve a referendum to take place among property owners, and the referendum must pass with what's known as a "double majority."
Double majority means a majority of both individual properties must pass the referendum, and a majority of the assessed value of property must approve. This means that while each property receives a vote in the referendum, the owners of larger buildings must also be on board in the vote. For example, even if 51 out of 100 property owners voted in favor of the district, but a group like Torrington Downtown Partners -- the largest landowner in downtown Torrington -- voted against the referendum, it likely would not pass. That structure helps balance the interests of both individual building owners and large conglomerates, Zaleski said. "I was a Doubting Thomas because I thought, 'How is this going to benefit not just my properties but my tenants?'" said Elizabeth Judd, who as president of the Konover Commercial Corp., manages a portfolio of 2.7 million square feet of commercial real estate, about 400,000 of which is downtown.
She's also the chairwoman of the Hartford BID board of directors, which recently passed a strategic plan that seeks to expand on the BID's original goals. "It was very controversial in Hartford" to get started, Judd said. "The group that formed the BID did a great job with their diligence, and once the group was formed, they sought out other improvement districts to come in and sort of give the pros and cons of forming one. They gave them a little bit of advice and really helped them with some great ideas and pitfalls."
At four years old, the district is cleaner, prettier and better marketed than ever before, Judd said, and few business owners gripe about the extra fees.
It helps that the BID ensures those cleaning the streets and providing security service are also trained in customer service -- they're called "ambassadors" -- and help give directions, jump start stalled vehicles or help change a tire and give advice to visitors about where to eat and shop. "My tenants have seen the ambassadors, or the cleaning people in the streets, and they've seen there's a difference," Judd said. "Now we're looking at doing more marketing of the downtown district as well ... And we'll be moving into some lobbying and being more active in the political arena."
"I think Torrington would do great to form a business improvement district," Judd added. "Both the property owners and businesses would benefit."