Coconut Grove panel plotting strategy for business improvement district
By Risa Polansky
Sidestepping a state law whose stringent requirements make forming business improvement districts difficult, Coconut Grove businesses are likely to become part of an altered version through a vote by Miami commissioners rather than area property owners.
Florida statutes require that, to instate a self-taxing district to fund area improvements and marketing initiatives, a majority of property owners within the proposed boundaries — 50% plus one — must vote yes. All absent votes count as opposition.
"Fifty-one percent of Miami doesn't do anything," said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, chair of the Coconut Grove Business Improvement Committee, a city-funded group formed in 2004 in order to transition into a full-fledged business improvement district.
At a committee meeting last week, Mr. Sarnoff pointed to his own recent City Commission election: only about 11% of residents voted.
The law posed a threat in the recent re-election of the Coral Gables district, credited with the revitalization of Miracle Mile.
Though a thorough campaign to out-of-town property owners did yield success, Executive Director Mari Molina worried in the months before the election that apathy, ignorance and absent voters would kill off the 10-year-old district.
"A lot of them (property owners) are out-of-towners, a lot of them are corporations, a lot of them are trusts," she said in May. In receiving a ballot by mail, "they may look at it and say, I don't know much about this, I don't want to vote."
Grovites fear the same.
However, Mr. Sarnoff said, state law also allows the municipal government to create a self-taxing district instead, but only to fund capital projects. He called this option the "best strategy going forward" for Coconut Grove.
Rather than replace the existing committee with an improvement district as originally intended, the committee would stay alive, assuming the marketing and operations functions the commission-approved self-taxing area could not. Both the committee and the district would have the same board members.
The amount commercial property owners within the district would be taxed has yet to be decided, but committee Executive Director David Collins said he anticipates about 20 cents a square foot.
The group would probably choose an official assessment after determining the costs the district would incur through its scope of work.
City administrators, including City Manager Pete Hernandez and CFO Larry Spring, last week agreed "streams of revenue (to the committee) will remain consistent with a possible increase of $150,000," Mr. Sarnoff said, totaling about $900,000.
"The city stepped up to the plate and took a proactive interest in us moving toward a BID," Mr. Collins said.
Committee members agreed the hope would be to tax property owners enough to garner a match to the city's contribution.
But before pitching the improvement district idea to fellow commissioners, Mr. Sarnoff wants to be certain area property owners and merchants are in favor.
During months of formal and informal meetings proposing the district to stakeholders, "I haven't had anybody say no to me yet," Mr. Collins said.
But the question is, Mr. Sarnoff said, do those in favor of the improvements understand the costs?
"Everybody wants to drive a Bentley," he said, "but nobody wants to pay for it."
In an impromptu, informal vote, committee members unanimously agreed they'd support forming a district knowing the estimated 20-cents-a-square-foot cost.
After some debate, they agreed also not to tax residential properties within the district, which is proposed to stretch from South Bayshore Drive to Aviation Avenue, from Aviation roughly to Margaret Street and along Main Highway to Franklin Avenue.
However, the group in the past has been hesitant to move forward.
The committee "suffers from fear and apoplexy," Mr. Sarnoff said, urging members to press on after months of discussion and planning. "I'd rather attempt and fail than do nothing."
Should Grovites waffle in creating the district, the committee "will not go on in perpetuity," he said. "I want to see that you guys want to take your destiny in your own hands."
Mr. Collins said a district could be in place within 60 to 90 days.