SAN RAFAEL -- San Rafael's Downtown Business Improvement District is pursuing a newly broadened mission as a rallying point for the area's different commercial interests, buoyed by anticipated revenue from an expanded annual assessment for downtown businesses and a membership that has grown beyond a long-time contingency of ground-level merchants and restaurants.
While some remained opposed to the new fees approved by the San Rafael City Council on May 20, many business operators expressed confidence that the recast district could help represent shared interests like public safety and parking while using additional funds to support streetscape improvements and other special projects.
Leaders in the organization said that the vote was a significant evolutionary step for a BID that has operated for more than 30 years. While traditionally focusing on special events and advertising for the city's central district, the newly cast organization is expected to act as a more vocal liaison between the city and downtown businesses, a conduit for business retention and recruitment and a means to develop shared standards for businesses operating in the downtown area.
"It was about growing it from just a merchants association, to focus on overall economic opportunities downtown," said Carol Thompson, who joined as executive director of the BID one year ago after a history of work with the nonprofit California Downtown Association. "The BID is keeping the focus very centered. We're really out on the street. The beauty of it is -- we have a specific geographic area where we focus."
By increasing the district's borders and the types of businesses subject to the once-a-year fee, last month's city council vote is expected to create funding around $100,000 annually to the redefined BID, according to council materials. Membership has also grown markedly, from around 120 retail and restaurant establishments to around 700 businesses in a variety of industries.
The new district spans from the Miracle mile to Hetherton Avenue, from Fifth to Third streets and down B Street to Second Street. Ground-floor retail, restaurant and personal services will pay a minimum of $175 annually; offices and professional services, $75; sole practitioners, fine arts organizations and nonprofits pay $50. Those in the most central part of the downtown area pay a higher "premium" rate.
Those fees, which will begin flowing to the BID in early 2014, will help arrest a plunge in funding that the organization has faced in recent years, said Stan Gibbs, president of the organization's board and program manager at the nonprofit Art Works Downtown. The BID lost $13,000 in annual funding when the city's former redevelopment agency shut down in 2012, and is eyeing the looming loss of a $30,000 annual subsidy connected to a soon-to-close downtown parking lot owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Talks had already been under way about restructuring the organization to include more business types and operate more independently from the city of San Rafael, but the loss of funding inspired a new sense of urgency over the past two years, he said.
"What really kicked us into gear was, when the recession hit, the redevelopment agencies lost a lot of funding and were eventually closed. We had to restructure or fold," said Mr. Gibbs, a board member for seven years.
The organization received 501(c)6 nonprofit status last year, with Ms. Thompson joining as executive director and helping to develop the proposal that was ultimately authorized by the San Rafael City Council.