Most people outside of downtown Boise know little about the association responsible for planting flowers in the more than 300 cement pots lining downtown streets and running events like Alive After Five and First Thursday. But more surprisingly, some merchants downtown say they don't know the intricacies of the governing organization that charges them a yearly fee for mandatory membership.
The City Council gave the Downtown Boise Association authority in 1987 to manage a Business Improvement District bordered by 5th and 13th streets and Myrtle and State streets. Every commercial or retail business in that district, whether a lobbyist office or Macy's, contributes two sets of dues to the DBA's annual $650,000 budget. One fee-which goes to keeping downtown clean, safe and nice looking-is based on the square footage of a business, restaurant or office. The second fee was approved by the City Council in 2003 to help pad a new marketing campaign, and charges most businesses $225 per year. Nonprofit organizations and small-scale businesses such as barbershops are charged $100 annually. Failure to pay these fees, said DBA's executive director Kâren Sander, could result in legal action including property liens.
The second fee was approved on a 3-2 vote, with a stipulation that its impact be re-evaluated in two years, according to the minutes of that February meeting. Yet 28 months later, the city hasn't revisited this issue, which has some merchants wondering why the DBA continues to charge them the assessment.
Sander and former DBA President Clay Carley both told BW the fee was never touted as a temporary tax, but merchants like Carol Howell, who has owned the 10th Street Station bar for seven years, said she and others thought the tax was a one-time deal to bolster a new marketing push-which included banners hung on light posts downtown, television and radio spots and print advertisements. Howell said she and others thought their fees would reduce this year.
"They sent this year's bills, and it's still the same amount," she said. Regardless, "These fees should be raised proportionately. The (assessment) quadrupled my bill, but for the Bon (Macy's) it's only a percentage increase. They didn't consider the size of the business in any way."
Dave Krick, owner of the downtown eateries Bittercreek Ale House and Reef, was president of the DBA in 2003 when the additional rate was approved. He said assessments had not been raised in 13 years, and the City Council's expected re-evaluation of these fees should determine whether the assessment should stay.
About those unhappy with the DBA's fee, he said, "The complainer pockets of people are those with struggling businesses, for the most part. But organizations benefit from the fees for a greater good." The DBA, Krick said, is "a caretaker organization taking people's money; it's a hard thing to get people to trust us." But he validated the increase by saying, "It helps, everyone paying their dues. We're in the middle of a war right now, having a healthy (downtown) Boise versus sprawl and greedy developers ... who pull business to areas like Eagle and the mall."
Michael Bunnell, owner of the Record Exchange and treasurer for the DBA board of directors, said without marketing efforts from the DBA, downtown would be barren. "Whiners complain it's the DBA's fault for everything, but they never lift a finger to help downtown," he said. "If the DBA were to disappear overnight, you'd hear howls of protests."
Merchants like Cazba owner Max Mohammadi and Janice Zuber, who owns the Purple Butterfly, say the DBA has done a good job promoting downtown business. "We would not survive without the DBA charging us dues," Mohammadi said. "The success of the whole program has to be on the shoulders of downtown business. I'd rather have the businesses pick up the tab rather than pass it to city government."
Carley said that the fee, which is annually reviewed by the DBA board for its effectiveness, has funded an "image awareness campaign" for downtown, and that he doesn't recall "a single letter, phone call or conversation with a merchant where they said they didn't think it was worth the money" during his time as president.
But some merchants say the DBA's marketing push has been ineffective, and the association has done little to inform its members of how their money is being spent. "There's not a lot of effort put into marketing downtown as a retail destination," said Janet Thompson, who with her husband, Mike, has owned Enzler's luggage shop downtown for the last five years. "This fee assessment should be revisited to see if what they are doing with this money is a return of investment for downtown retail."
Perry Allen, owner of the Basement Gallery, said the increased fees have resulted in negligible benefits. "The marketing has created no change in my business," he said. And when it comes to the beautification efforts of planting flowers in the cement pots dotting downtown, he said, "They sit dormant four months out of the year as trash receptacles for the most part."
Other downtown business owners say they have had little communication with the DBA. The Wilderness Society, which moved last July from Vista Ave. to the Jefferson Place building on 9th and Jefferson streets, was informed of the DBA by building's leasing agent, but received its first assessment bill this year with just a facts sheet about services the DBA provides.
"I thought it was weird (just getting this bill)," said Courtney Hoffman with the Wilderness Society. "It seems like $200 is a lot of money for not knowing where it goes. I would have thought that after paying the bill I would have heard something from them," but she said she hadn't.
Sander said DBA representatives personally visit new businesses to distribute information, and that the association holds monthly and annual meetings for the members. Out of the about 225 merchants in the district, she said about 20 show up for the monthly meetings that give merchants a chance to hear DBA news.
DBA board members like Krick and Bunnell say they pound the pavement to try and get merchants more involved with the DBA. "I can't tell you how many hours I spent walking around and talking to people," Krick said. "It was hours all the advocates spent without being paid. Those others must decide to engage themselves."
But the Thompsons say the meetings aren't worth their time to attend, and other merchants, like Allen, Mohammadi and Howell say the monthly meetings are held at times inconvenient to small business owners.
"My big question is whether the money I pay is worth it," Janet Thompson said. "The DBA does do a good job of keeping downtown clean, safe and vibrant, but maybe it should create a PR campaign and let merchants know what they're doing."
City Councilman David Eberle was not on the council when the marketing assessment was passed, and said he would look this week into whether this issue was to be revisited. "I should be (DBA's) liaison, but I haven't had the time," he said. Eberle had not heard about the assessment before being interviewed, but told BW that the council had little power to change the fees. "Basically, the only oversight the council has is if [the DBA] is in for boundary or rate changes," he said. "After that, it's internal to the DBA themselves."
For more information about the Downtown Boise Association visit www.downtownboise.org.