Community Implications

Map of the Downtown Rochester District proposed for the Business Improvement District by the RDDC

The entire community must be authentically and substantially represented in the planning and implementation of community initiatives. This is not what has transpired. A BID would not have been the vehicle to genuine, long-term, and shared vitality if it had. A BID is an attempt to improve the business development of an area from a narrow viewpoint. It is short term window dressing that doesn’t address the causes of strife or frustration in a community. People in crisis are seen as a problems to be solved with bus tickets out of town. BIDs disrupt organic growth by pushing people out of the way.

While the post is long, it is not an exhaustive list of all of potentially negative consequences, but these are major issues, citations from other communities who have Business Improvement Districts. These examples plainly demonstrate that a BID is not the 21st century solution we need to help grow our community. We can have sustainable growth, we can embrace thoughtful development, but we can not, we MUST NOT repeat the mistakes of the past. We must not redivide our city with an invisible inner loop.

You’ve seen the posters…

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(Or if you haven’t you will be seeing more of them). Synopses of key critiques from affected communities along with links and receipts are below. We are looking to expand on these notions with community coalition partners who have specific interest or connection.

BIDs began with the best of intentions, as likely did the interest in it as a solution for Rochester, but power corrupts…

Business interests developed BIDs in the 1970s as a means of increasing commercial activity and beautifying downtowns. Their development also allowed these interests to take security powers upon themselves, reallocating money from district property owners and the public coffers to do so. There are now over a thousand such districts nationwide, and more internationally. BIDs, claim their proponents, facilitate urban revitalization, yet intrinsic to that process is the coercive exclusion of marginalized people. More than anything, BIDs have come to resemble unaccountable private governments.

Walicek, T. (2021, April 27). Cities are outsourcing policing to business districts. Teen Vogue. Retrieved June 11, 2022

BIDs are Anti-Democratic

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In the US, we entrust elected representatives, such as City Council members, to make decisions on taxation, spending and laws on our behalf. They are voted into their positions by citizens who actually live within the geographic boundary they serve. Our Democracy is based upon the idea that one person equals one vote.

In a Business Improvement District, a private group of property owners, (who may not even live within the district) decide who and how much to charge an additional tax, how the collected funds will be used and how public space will be administered. Property values and wealth are the basis of power. Suddenly community control is based on one dollar/one vote. This is exceedingly unfair, especially in a community where the generational wealth of Black and other communities of Color was stifled by racist housing and lending policies, decreasing the likelihood of racial, gender, and socioeconomic inclusivity in the resulting BID decision making. Policies will likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table.

The BID also has direct access to City Council to lobby. And speaking of lobbying, at this very moment the RDDC has a nearly $5,000,000 budget, $2,980,000 of which is public funding (!) to convince the community to be in support of a Business Improvement District. 2.98 million of your public funds for bread and circus. How is that equitable?

“…it should be up to the voters and residents of this city and others to decide how resources will be allocated, where quasi-police forces should be allowed to be, and what they should be trained to do. Money and property should not be the basis for civic participation. Business improvement districts are anti-democratic, and we should all be scared of them.”  (emphasis added)

Epstein, A. (n.d.). The case against Central Square’s business improvement district. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Retrieved June 10, 2022

BIDS can even hire prosecutors to focus on trying nuisance and “quality of life” crimes used to criminalize poverty.

BIDs Lack Transparency and Accountability

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BIDS are not subject to Freedom of Information Law or Open Meetings Law. This means that the Board will be able to make decisions behind closed doors and they do not owe the public access.

“Others alleged that the partnership operates with too much administrative overhead and too little accountability, citing its abolishment of the board’s term limits soon after inception in 2005.

“It’s like this little cabal,” said Bill Duggan, who owns Madam’s Organ nightclub and other properties in the neighborhood…

… the Adams Morgan Partnership’s leadership has become concentrated in a few hands and increasingly autocratic. They accused the Adams Morgan Partnership’s leadership of trying to stifle dissent or remove opponents on the board and its 14 voting members through a recently adopted code of conduct that, among other things, requires board members to “speak with one voice.”

…Matt Wexler, an investor in the LINE hotel and a former board member, questioned, with others, why the BID’s leadership spurned an offer of free office space at the LINE and decided to pay more than $17,400 a year to lease space owned by BID treasurer Linda Roth.”

Kunkle, F. (2021, July 18). Fight over Adams Morgan nonprofit splits business community. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 11, 2022 

BIDs use Private Security in Public Spaces

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BIDS are able to hire private security. There has already been mention of “bringing back the Red Shirts” by former chief of police/former mayor Bob Duffy in the Rochester Business Journal and Chamber of Commerce site. (It should be noted that Bob is a board member of the Downtown Partnership, the organization that would become the managing entity of the BID)

“Aside from great investments, edifices, and attractions, one critical need for downtown is safety, and most importantly, the perception of safety. At one time, Rochester had a group of retired police officers called the Red Shirts who walked and biked downtown. They gave directions, were helpful, and also provided a sense of security…they are being discussed to come back through the BID.” (emphasis added)

Bob Duffy: Public-private partnerships fuel downtown development, hope for future

The first question you should ask is who would feel this “sense of security” with additional surveillance and close connection with the RPD? Would it be the entire community, or just one portion? And who is accountable, or held liable if the private security oversteps their bounds? Are property owners within the BID responsible? In a city struggling to get its Police Accountability Board running, motivated in part by the wake of excessive force used by officers during public protests, this is especially worrisome.

It has been documented in many communities with Business Improvement Districts that people are pushed out of public spaces by private security, or even worse, they are physically assaulted to hasten their exit. Do people who don’t fit a desired demographic feel the safety Bob believes we need to perceive?

Racism/Paternalism: A BID is 21st Century Redlining

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Cities across the US have been scarred by racist housing policies that specifically disinvested in communities of color. The Rochester area is no exception. By creating a Business Improvement District as large as center city, with major investments in infrastructure and services that must be made within that footprint we are once again dividing our community in the shadow of the inner loop. What if the 2.98 million in public funds were directed not by the Rochester Downtown Partnership, but by a coalition of folks from historically redlined communities?

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Time and again the RDDC has co-opted language of community/marginalized groups and their advocates. This was highlighted recently by the arts community. Why bring this up? In our review of the RDDC’s website and supporting documents we wanted to highlight the RDDC’s own directive “TAKING A STAND: RDDC’s Commitment to the Rochester Community” created in the midst of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020. So many of the policy implications stand in direct opposition to anti-racist actions they themselves promised!

BID Taxes Cause Commercial Rent Increases

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Business Improvement Districts create an additional tax fee for property owners. Commercial and Residential Tenants may not pay taxes directly to the BID, but those fees will be added to rental costs for individuals and businesses.

In 2014 the RDDC attempted to create a BID and failed. Below are some of the concerns regarding taxation from nearly a decade ago as seen in the Rochester Business Journal.

Another tax? 
—J. Camar

I am a city resident. “Assessment” is nothing more than a private taxation. It is a dangerous precedent. This is one more way to squeeze out small businesses that don’t fit the ideal of the white, moneyed developers and the crowd they are trying to attract. The ultimate goal here is to control the streets and make downtown essentially a gated community. 
—Eve Elzenga, Eve Elzenga Design

Sounds to me like over the past 20 years, the RDDC has failed in its mission to “deliver a vibrant and economically strong downtown” and is now looking for a financial lifeline to continue doing basically little more than providing sound bites to the local media anytime something insignificant happens downtown. 
—Lester Wilson, North Syracuse

Staff, R. B. J. (2014, June 27). Majority backs creation of bid downtown. Rochester Business Journal. Retrieved June 11, 2022 (Note: if you don’t read the article the majority they reference is of a subset of RBJ readers)

Small Business and Small Property Owner Woes

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Small businesses are already struggling in the aftermath of the pandemic. Increases in rent without dramatic and immediate increases in revenue could mean that many beloved small businesses, the shops and services that make our city OUR CITY, could be pushed out of downtown or shuttered. If they are able to remain, the pressure that can be exerted by property owners who now have control over spaces beyond their own can intimidate smaller businesses and property owners, in Georgetown: “There are a lot of mom-and-pops that are renters, and some of them rent to big property owners, and they can’t go against the fabric of the BID because they’re scared of retaliation,

Mob mentality does not create vitality. Neither does greed for that matter…

Since the establishment of 82nd street BID, the area has become dominated by chain stores, including two Chase bank branches, The Gap, Bank of America, Duane Reade, and others, while smaller businesses have either downsized or gone under…

“This will all start a chain of events that will end with real estate investors buying all of the property in the area to put in larger retail spaces. The small property owners won’t be able to hold tenants, won’t be able to offer the big spaces large chains need, and will eventually sell to these investors. Small businesses will disappear.”

Gothamist Staff, Samantha Max, James Ramsay, Elizabeth Kim and Jessica Gould, & Jon Campbell. (2014, October 9). Jackson Heights Mom & Pop Shops Fear “business improvement” means banishment. Gothamist. Retrieved June 11, 2022

“If I had known what it was going to be like, I would never have started a business in Adams Morgan,” said Alisha Edmonson, co-owner of Songbyrd, a music venue and cafe. “It’s a lot of money to be paying into an organization that not only doesn’t support you, but almost goes against you.

Kunkle, F. (2021, July 18). Fight over Adams Morgan nonprofit splits business community. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 11, 2022 

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BIDs can increase Homelessness

Lack of affordable housing leads not only to displacement, but also to increased homelessness, which then increases the likelihood of targeted displacement/incarceration efforts. The following example is from NoMa in Washington DC.

“The NoMa encampments — which grew to encompass the K, L, and M streets underpasses — were by no means D.C.’s first, but for years they stood as a symbol of the city’s unequal growth.

Sandwiched between the seemingly never-ending construction in NoMa to the west and a fast-gentrifying residential community to the east … the encampments were partly born of necessity — they were refuges for people displaced by high housing costs or misfortune, and alternatives to a crowded shelter system many people experiencing homelessness said they did not trust.”

Austermuhle, M. (2021, October 1). D.C. makes a final push to close Noma Homeless Encampments. NPR. Retrieved June 11, 2022

Arts & Culture are stifled/Artwashing

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The Arts are often misused by economic development efforts. Rather than seeing Art as a means of expression and creative interpretation of ideas, it’s a means to an end. The arts are used to gentrify spaces. Artwashing describes the use of art and artists in a positive way to distract from or legitimize negative actions by an individual, organization, country, or government—especially in reference to gentrification.

Artists are often not seen as partners in community development, and their expertise is discounted/expected often without adequate compensation. Their participation is limited in expression as it is sanitized and corporatized to appeal to the perceived interests of a desired demographic. An example from this very fight:

When a members of Roc Arts United‘s City Committee reached out to the RDDC to advocate on behalf of artists, encourage industry standard best practices and learn more about the funding behind the RDDC Window Project, the RAU’s efforts to work with the RDDC and bring a more sustainable, equitable, and impactful program to the community were disregarded.

Without clear answers on funding and requirements, the committee did their own digging. They found that the arts were being used to artwash the approval of a Business Improvement District. RAU members recognized not only the potential for exploiting the arts, but also the negative social impact that a BID would have on the community and began organizing. A creative Art Wash protest led to postponement of the Window Project.

Freedom of expression, including protest, is critical in communities especially with such dramatic power imbalances. Arts funding and arts programming should be overseen by arts community members, not by special interests using the arts for another agenda. We are hopeful that some of the public’s money that the RDDC currently controls can still be directed to the arts community without BID strings attached. Perhaps with new leadership the RDDC will be willing to work with the community to develop solutions that fit Rochester rather than try to squeeze us into another city’s ideal.

20th century ideas on community will not create the thriving and vital community we could be. We can build a better model if it doesn’t already exist. Take the first step and let’s get rid of the BID.

As with any of our posts, if you find a factual inaccuracy, please leave a comment below with citation for us to evaluate and update as appropriate. Our goal is to educate the community on the potential negative aspects of a Business Improvement District. We do believe it is possible to have economic development without displacement and would like to see an equitable alternative to the BID structure that genuinely involves stakeholders beyond the ones who generally already have a seat in the boardroom.

9 responses to “Community Implications”

  1. Mark David Avatar
    Mark David


    I would like to know,

    Do you agree that as it currently stands Downtown Rochester has been in a consistent state of decline since the 1980s?

    What do you propose to enliven the community and bring about a greater quality of life for us all?

    1. Admin Avatar

      Downtown Rochester has definitely changed since then! We have been part of the trend of declining shopping malls and major corporations playing a smaller role in downtown areas across the country. Luckily, we’ve seen a new vitality developing in the last 10 years, with a steady increase in public art, new public parks, more events, and a wealth of restaurants, events, and small businesses. Supporting already established efforts that have shown success is the first thing we have proposed to continue increasing the vitality of our downtown community.

      Our arts community in particular, often highlighted by city government and other groups as a sign of success, has been drastically underfunded. Imagine the possibilities if we actually funded them without strings attached…

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  3. […] likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table,” the group’s website […]

  4. […] likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table,” the group’s website […]

  5. […] likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table,” the group’s website […]

  6. […] likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table,” the group’s website […]

  7. […] likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table,” the group’s website […]

  8. […] likely be based upon the interests of the majority white and wealthy at the table,” the group’s website […]

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