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In its first year, Charleston’s first business improvement district is expected to bring in $100,000 from 37 private property owners to be used for the betterment of downtown’s Slack Plaza.

The City Council approved the City Center Business Improvement District at its Sept. 7 meeting.

“The goal is to use that money to leverage it for larger grants,” said Lewis Payne, owner of the historic Dupont Hotel building and member of the district’s planning committee. “But in the short term, we’d like to hire a neighborhood ambassador to help with beautification, safety, sanitation — everything to help the new park become sustainable.”

In business improvement districts, commercial property owners are assessed a fee in addition to their existing taxes. A board representing the district decides how to use the money to make improvements inside the district.

In addition to the property owners’ contributions, the city will contribute $50,000 this year to the district and the district board plans to seek $25,000 in additional funding, according to a plan submitted to the council last month.

Property owners in the district submitted a petition to the City Council to start the process of establishing the district last November. Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin established a planning committee for the proposal on Dec. 7.

Discussion about the idea had gone for about four years, said Susie Salisbury, the Charleston Area Alliance’s vice president of community development, who helped with the project.

“They knew something was going to happen with Slack Plaza before long, and it just kind of got accelerated when [Goodwin] was making it a priority,” she said. “It became loud and clear that security and cleanliness and beautification were the driving forces for this group, and then activation of Slack Plaza.”

Slack Plaza and the Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority’s Transit Mall are in the midst of a $3.5 million renovation on track to be completed by the end of the year. Once completed, the area will have a small covered performance stage, shade trees and new pathways. There also will be lawn areas, bike racks, swings, a major renovation of the existing Charleston police outpost to include restrooms, and a small ice rink.

The City Center Business Improvement district encompasses a more than six-block area of downtown Charleston from Court Street to Summers Street on one side and from Washington Street to Virginia Street on the other.

The fee will be based on a formula involving the square footage of each property owner’s buildings and the size of their lots. It will be collected along with the property owners’ city fire service fee. Properties owned by nonprofit and government entities are not required to contribute to the district.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure we get people using the new park space through culture elements, food trucks, live music, arts and crafts,” Payne said. “That’s what we’re going to use this money for — to make the new, what we’re calling City Center Park/Slack Plaza a success, which in turn will help the local property owners. So we’re just trying to improve the neighborhood and help increase property values.”

Long term, the money will be used to leverage larger grants for streetscape projects and to improve the aesthetics of the area, Payne said.

“The best part is that this money can also be leveraged,” Salisbury said in supporting the district at a public hearing at a City Council meeting. “If you’re paying attention, a lot of money is coming down from the federal government right now. The Economic Development Administration has lots of funds for planning and project implementation. And these funds are then put to use for match to try to roll down some of those federal funds.”

The “neighborhood ambassador,” would be a full-time position for someone who would be a sort of liaison between law enforcement and property owners, he said. Payne said the goal is to have the ambassador hired when the renovations are completed.

“It’s really about beautification and improving the aesthetics of the neighborhood and safety,” Payne said. “The biggest concerns that our members claimed were safety and sanitation. So, in the short term, we’re going to address the cleanliness and the safety of the new park. People were concerned about crime activity and safety walking through Slack Plaza, and that’s what we want to address.”

While they’ve been legal since the 1990s, the City Center Business Improvement District is the only one in the state that’s currently operating. Morgantown previously had four business improvement districts, but all have expired, Salisbury said.

By state law, petitions to start business improvement districts must be signed by at least four owners of commercial property in the proposed district who own at least 51% of the value of all commercial property in the district.

At a public hearing about the district during the Sept. 7 council meeting, none of the property owners spoke in opposition to the proposal.

“That’s got to be a record right then and there,” Salisbury said.

While none of the property owners were “doing cartwheels” to pay more in fees, they understood their contribution could leverage additional investment in the area, she said.

“As very astute property owners and business people, they understood, and I think the thing is, they control how it’s invested, and that’s also very important,” Salisbury said. “While city government needs to handle procuring the investment, the city does not at all decide how the money is spent. Those property owners control how it’s spent.”

The money must be used for services beyond what the city already provides, she said.

Salisbury said the district can be expanded or other districts added, but it must be driven by property owners. Under state law, business improvement districts cannot be in place longer than 10 years, unless they’re reinstated.

Charleston’s business improvement district was aided by a grant from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, which paid for consulting services from Terri Cutright, a retired Morgantown Main Street manager. Representatives from the city’s planning office also assisted.

“All this came together, and working on it during the pandemic was really good because it provided us an opportunity to really stay focused on it,” Salisbury said. “They’ve worked really hard. We have lots of meetings, lots of surveys of the property owners, lots of peer-to-peer conversations. We had two meetings where we brought the property owners together to talk and think through where are your concerns, what would you like to see this do.

“They’re going to have to do that annually, so they can decide how they want these funds used.”

Matt Sutton, Goodwin’s chief of staff, said the mayor plans to appoint a board for the district at the next City Council meeting. The plan is to appoint property owners who proposed the district, in addition to council members Brent Burton and Becky Ceperley, who were on the planning committee and introduced the bill allowing the district.

Lori Kersey covers the city and county. She can be reached at 304-348-1240 or Follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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