Riverway Ruse: Mixed Messages, Missing Pieces

Community Education Series: PART 2

Why is the RDDC pushing for a downtown BID?

People supporting the idea of a Business Improvement District downtown give varying and conflicting reasons for why we supposedly ‘need a BID’. One minute they say downtown is thriving! It’s booming with investment! And the next moment it’s called lifeless and empty, desperate for vitality. Mayor Evans repeatedly says we need a BID just because over 1,200 other cities have one, too. 

So what’s the BID deal?

The Draft District Plan’s reasons for a BID focus on things that help commercial businesses and property interests for urban renewal in Downtown Rochester. It says that downtown has a lot of empty office spaces as a result of changes in how we work. It’s true, more people work remotely, and many companies have downsized. This trend isn’t unique to our city. In other places with BIDs that have been around for decades, they still have the same problems. Having a BID didn’t fix it.

Ignoring Rochester’s reality:
poverty and housing burdens overlooked

The RDDC’s Draft Plan doesn’t mention any of the persistent poverty and housing instability in Rochester. About one-third of residents and half of all our children live in poverty. Their plan also doesn’t mention that nearly one-half of Rochester households are rent burdened. This means they’re paying more than a third of their income towards housing. It’s not surprising because of who wrote the plan. The RDDC has a narrow view that ignores the wider community.

When the City and County talk about giving money to Rochester’s elite, it’s always called “economic development.” But they talk about working class and poor residents safety nets are called an expense. What would happen if we invested in working class and poor neighbors instead?

Why is there such a big difference in wealth in Rochester?

There have been many government policies like redlining and unfair lending practices that made it so money was really only invested in white neighborhoods and white families. This limited property ownership and the ability to build generational wealth for immigrants and Communities of Color in areas across the United States, including Rochester.

The wealth gap caused by these policies from the past directly impacts property ownership and wealth today. In a BID when power is connected to ownership of parcels, who gets a voice?

Academic research has shown BIDs make inequality worse and they push out of poor and working class neighbors, especially Communities of Color.

21st Century Redlining

BIDs can only spend their dollars within their own boundary. So if the proposed Downtown BID wants to raise 2.2 million in tax dollars, none of those dollars can be spent to stop poverty down the street, if it’s not in the district. One of New York States poorest neighborhoods is only blocks away. Its weird that the boundary of the BID hops up into a poor neighborhood, until you notice its so they can loop in the train station.

But it says if we give them 2 million dollars they’ll give some money to organizations to help the poor!

Yes, $110k of their $2,200,000 budget is listed for “shelter and expert case work” to be done by some groups they didn’t name. Remember, BID dollars can only be used within the BID. The Open Door Mission does own six parcels within the boundary, so it is possible they would be tapped, but Social services are the County’s responsibility, not the RDDC’s pet project.

What’s the alternative?

Monroe County can prioritize the needs of people who were denied opportunities because of government policies. This could be done by cutting tax breaks for vanity projects and upscale development. Or instead, the county could raise taxes by less than a cup of coffee a month for most homeowners and guarantee housing stability for all our neighbors. We can choose to invest in policies that fix root causes of homelessness and addiction. Real changes that would actually improve the lives of neighbors hit hardest by poverty. Homelessness is a policy choice.

From voluntary dues to mandatory fees…

So if BIDs are primarily focused on big business, just like the RDDC … and if most of the services listed in the budget are services the RDDC already offers: what’s the big difference between the RDDC and a BID?

If a BID is passed, the RDDC will be fully absorbed into the “Partnership for Downtown” (or PDR – Remember, Galin Brooks is already the head of both). Becoming the BID means a name change and they won’t have to work to get members to pay dues to fund their salaries and other overhead. Instead, the city will get it for them! Every year the City will collect a BID fee — a tax in all but name — from every property in the district whether property owners actually want them, or not.

Under a BID the city would just hand those dollars over to the RDDC’s BID every year, no matter what is happening in other areas of Rochester. The BID and their pot of tax dollars would be controlled by the biggest property owners. And the biggest property owners own a majority of parcels, so they would be the ones with the most voting power!

What a crappy deal! (For us)

BID fees are often passed through to renters as fees, or landlords will just raise rents to cover them. These fees drive up the cost of living for residents, who have no way to vote for representation on the board. They don’t have any real say on how those dollars are spent, or even towards getting to decide if the BID moves forward.

What’s the alternative?

The RDDC can continue to operate as a local development corporation and still provide services. They’ve been able to get lots of private and government funding for projects without a BID.

Roc the Riverway documents even mentioned that a Local Development Corp could provide the services they suggested. The city could request proposals and the RDDC could still apply for the opportunity in an open and transparent way.

We don’t need a BID. Developers just want one.

If the goal is to have more people come to live, work and play downtown, maybe we should work on making life easier for the people who live here. If rents stopped soaring, and people could afford what they need to live, if people didn’t have to struggle and work multiple jobs just to survive- they would have more free time and funds to spend downtown?

There is enough to go around if we share our downtown. But it’s not fair for a few people to try and take it over.

So while a BID takes voting rights away from the people who live here and gives it to parcels, residents DO vote for their City Council members. Council members are supposed to act in the community’s best interest. But they need to know what the people want and need. It’s better that they hear from you directly, and not through some rigged RDDC survey.

Click here to generate an email to citycouncilmembers@cityofrochester.gov,
and tell them: No BID. No way, No how!

Stay tuned…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *