Downtown is not Disneyland
I first heard of business improvement districts (BIDs) a decade ago, when a friend, Dr. Randall Amster of Georgetown University, was protesting an attempt by Tempe, Arizona, to transform its downtown. Tempe had created a BID. Funded by an interest-free city loan and tax on business owners, the BID created services that went beyond what the Tempe government offered.
A sort of city within a city. A private entity within a public one.
Tempe’s BID gained control over sidewalks, and began to enforce a no-sitting, no-sleeping, no-loitering policy.
Private security guards were hired.
Surveillance cameras installed.
There was a focused increase on cleanliness and trash collection.
A crackdown on protest and street activism.
The BID tried to define downtown Tempe as a place only certain people — the clean, the wealthy, the shoppers — were welcome.
The goal of the BID was not democracy.
It was about something else.
“The sanitization of space, and the criminalization of status,” Amster wrote in his book, “Street People and the Contested Realms of Public Space.”
Since then, BIDs, also known as central business districts, have flourished across the U.S. By some estimates, 1,000 exist today.
There’s talk of creating one here.
“It’s a way to provide added resources above what the city will do,” Kim White, head of River City Co., said recently. (River City Co. and a Colorado consultant are holding meetings about a BID here.)
Here’s the rough idea: 500 or so downtown property and business owners would pay a fee — 20 cents to 60 cents — on each $100 of assessed property.
A select group of property owners — a board, unelected by the public — would then designate how those funds are spent.
The BID board wants a cleaner downtown? Dozens of new trash cans appear, complete with a Chattanooga BID logo. Crews of private maintenance workers patrol the BID district, emptying and picking up trash.
But it’s not just litter: a cleaner downtown also means less visible homelessness. Crews of hired security guards steer, sweep and push away homeless folks from entryways. Sidewalks. Alleys. Parks. Panhandling disappears.
Sidewalks, once public property, are now rented by business owners. Protest vanishes, as the BID rarely grants permission to march down the sidewalks.
Additional surveillance cameras appear.
It’s not hard to see the dystopian possibilities. BIDs allow a select few unchecked control over our downtown landscape, which already suffers from soft gatekeeping. (Sky-high rents, for example.)
Would a Black Lives Matter march be welcome within a BID?
Would local preachers who offer free food to the homeless?
Street musicians and buskers? Slackers and skaters?
“BIDs can hire its own security to patrol an area, effectively control who is offered retail space, kick out street vendors, and influence legislation and expansion efforts,” writes Max Rivlin-Nadler in New Republic. (The essay title? “Business Improvement Districts Ruin Neighborhoods.”)
I can understand the allure of a BID here. Downtown Chattanooga has been the belle of the ball for years, heralded near and far. Yet if its luster has faded, as some say, it’s only because of rapid, unchecked growth elsewhere.
Chattanooga is cannibalizing itself; downtown must compete with other parts of the city — North Shore, Main Street, the West End, South Broad — for money, tourism, attention. (Move the Chattanooga Lookouts stadium and it’s going to get a whole lot worse.)
There’s only so much money to go around. Only so many restaurants folks can visit. (When is our hotel bubble going to burst?)
When rents are exorbitant, wages low and gentrification encouraged, then conditions create homelessness.
And BIDs aren’t friendly to homeless folks.
Last month, the U.C.-Berkeley School of Law released a study on California BIDs and homelessness. Its findings:
› “BIDs use their own private security and coordinate closely with local police departments to enforce anti-homeless laws and otherwise exclude or remove homeless people from their districts.”
› “Privately run districts, mostly funded by property assessments, use their power and resources to advocate for anti-homeless policies and to support policing practices that exclude or drive out homeless people.”
Downtown Chattanooga is not meant solely for consumerism or entertainment.
It’s not meant for make-believe, where only clean, predictable and entertaining things happen.
As Amster says: if you want that, go to Disneyland.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.
Keim Shirley, left, puts his arm around Tracy Corello in a homeless encampment behind the city’s wellness center on East 11th Street on April 6.