COLUMBIA – Despite paying elevated property taxes and membership association fees, many downtown business owners say they feel like they have no influence on downtown affairs.
Some said at a Special Business District board meeting Tuesday a way to rectify that would be to establish a new governing agent downtown known as a Community Improvement District. Others say establishing the Community Improvement District would further alienate business owners and hurt consumers in the 43 square blocks that make up the heart of Columbia.
The Community Improvement District would eliminate the two current downtown government bodies — the Special Business District and the Central Columbia Association — and create a steering committee made up of appointed property and business owners. It would also establish a half-percent sales tax for downtown consumers to bring in revenue for the organization.
Some people expressed concern about the plan.
"It's a pretty bad economic time to be putting a larger sales tax on consumers," Cool Stuff owner Arnie Fagan said. Fagan has publicly spoken out about the creation of the Community Improvement District. He said several meetings have taken place in which other business owners have also stepped forward to express their concerns about the restructuring.
Special Business District board member Mike Vangel said he thought the creation of the Community Improvement District would be a great solution for downtown.
"I think it would be a real positive development for the District with real significant benefits for business owners and the public," he said.
Mary Wilkerson, Special Business District chairwoman of the board, said that business owners "feel like they really don't have a voice." She also cited the Central Columbia Association's tight budget as the reason for the plan for the Community Improvement District.
Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Special Business District, agrees that the association's lack of funds is a problem.
"The CCA doesn't have a lot of money, so they don't have a lot of power," she said.
Fagan said the Special Business District has been unresponsive to the stakeholders, and while the association's power might grow, the power of business owners might not.
"Will the CCA get more power? Yes. But does that mean that the stakeholders and merchants would get more power, too? No, it doesn't," Fagan said.
The creation of the new governing body is still very much in process, Vangel said. The Central Columbia Association will need to discuss it in its board meeting, and a joint Central Columbia Association and Special Business District steering committee will look at all the factors involved in the restructuring.
Vangel said the Community Improvement District could perhaps be created in the next 90 days.