COLUMBIA — Two groups guide the vision for downtown Columbia, but the city manager is recommending one be eliminated. The idea is drawing criticism from those who believe the two boards have distinct purposes and should remain separate.
City Manager Mike Matthes issued a report to the City Council at its Dec. 19 meeting that included several recommendations for consolidating city advisory boards and commissions. One idea is to fold the duties of the Downtown Leadership Council into the relatively new Downtown Community Improvement District, provided the district board increases representation by neighborhood associations and other stakeholders.
- The Downtown Leadership Council was established by ordinance in March 2008. It consists of 16 volunteers charged with conducting research and advising the Columbia City Council on long-term downtown planning and development. The board includes members appointed by the council to represent colleges, MU, neighborhoods, city government departments and other commissions.
- The Downtown Community Improvement District, established in February, seeks to promote the business, cultural and entertainment identity of downtown, to provide services to visitors, to represent business interests and to “support and coordinate long-term planning for the district,” according to its website. Members of the district's board must live downtown or own property or a business there.
The Leadership Council is a volunteer board that advises the City Council on long-term planning and development projects. The Improvement District is an independent political subdivision that seeks to promote business and entertainment and to “support and coordinate long-term planning for the district,” according to its website.
Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the staff is striving for efficiency.
“If you can get multiple bodies that have similar duties to focus their efforts, that has some benefits,” St. Romaine said. “If you have boards and commissions that are not communicating, that causes problems.”
The Leadership Council recently appointed a liaison to the Improvement District board, and district representatives also are attending Leadership Council meetings. St. Romaine said that indicates a need to collaborate.
“Both entities want to do what’s best for downtown Columbia,” St. Romaine said. “If that’s the overall objective, you want to make sure both groups are moving in that direction and not working against each other.”
City staff looked at meeting minutes, agendas and establishing legislation of each commission and board in compiling the recommendations, St. Romaine said. The process began in 2009, according to a memo from the city manager to the council.
Transition to a community improvement district
The Special Business District Board of Directors is yet another group with an advisory role on downtown issues. It, however, will cease to exist when the Improvement District begins collecting a longstanding property tax in the fall.
Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Improvement District, said visitors to downtown will notice no difference. “There shouldn’t be any major changes. It’s still the same office. It’s still, generally speaking, the same organization."
Brian Treece, vice chair of the Leadership Council, said differences in the way each board is appointed raise a red flag. The Special Business District is appointed by the City Council. Treece said the Improvement District is an independent political subdivision whose board is appointed by the mayor from a list approved by sitting Improvement District members, subject to City Council approval.
Missouri statutes specify only that appointments to community improvement district boards follow the process outlined in the petitions that create them. Robert Hollis, who served as legal counsel in the formation of the Improvement District, said the process allows input from the mayor, the council and the district itself.
“It gives the three parties involved the ability to voice their opinion,” Hollis said.
As an independent political subdivision, Treece said, the Improvement District should not be tasked with carrying out vital city functions such as long-term planning. He drew an analogy with the Grindstone Transportation Development District.
“Would the city leave planning and design standards for the Walmart to the Grindstone TDD?” he asked.
An agreement between both boards allows the Improvement District this year to use tax revenue collected by the Special Business District.
Skip Walther, chairman of the Improvement District, said the arrangement makes the Special Business District a “figurehead.” The groups are virtually identical, except the Improvement District can levy sales tax.
“The organization will be stronger, it will be more robust, and it will provide more services for downtown business owners, property owners and residents,” Walther said.
Gartner said consolidation of the Leadership Council and the Improvement District would create a more unified voice for downtown interests.
“The concern is that there are two groups that are speaking on behalf of downtown, which is always confusing for the (City) Council,” Gartner said. “It makes it difficult for the council to act.”
Leadership Council Chairwoman Rosie Gerding, however, said her group's input complements that of the Improvement District.
“Our main purpose is planning and advising the City Council,” she said.
Established in 2008, the Leadership Council's main accomplishment to date is the release of a downtown charrette report in October 2010. It outlines an extensive plan for long-term development, specifically focusing on areas around Broadway and Providence Road and in the North Village Arts District.
St. Romaine said the report has already produced tangible results, including the designs of the planned Short Street garage and nearby DoubleTree hotel.
“I think over the next couple of years, you’ll see additional projects that were guided by that particular document,” St. Romaine said.
Big ideas from the charrette include making downtown more pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly, increasing housing options and using green space to build visual gateways into downtown.
Brent Gardner, who represents the Historic Preservation Commission on the Leadership Council, said such far-reaching suggestions lie beyond the scope of the Improvement District.
“We’re trying to make recommendations based on planning,” Gardner said. “The CID is on the ground, looking at their day-to-day and what they can do immediately.
“There’s no reason whatsoever for these two groups to merge.”
A matter of representation
The recommendation by staff is contingent upon the Improvement District considering “ways to include neighborhoods and other groups represented by the DLC.”
Gartner said the Improvement District intends to do just that. “When we set up the CID, the idea was we would have committees that were made up of a combination of board members and other people who had expertise in a specific area.”
By law, members of the Improvement District board must either live or own property or businesses downtown.
The Leadership Council, by contrast, represents neighborhoods, colleges and others. Gerding said that wider representation ensures one party's interests don't dominate.
“The CID has to answer to their property taxpayers,” Gerding said. “That’s the only group they have to answer to.”
Gerding said she is uncertain whether those paying the sales tax approved by downtown voters in November will influence how the Improvement District plans to spend the revenue. Gartner said the sales tax gives the Improvement District the means to work with a wider range of interested parties and to implement their suggestions.
“It’s one thing to say, 'Why don’t we do some beautification downtown?' It’s another thing to get business owners and everyone on board and make it happen. We can do both,” Gartner said.
Gartner believes it’s important that those with a financial stake downtown be involved in planning. “There is a concern that there are business owners, property owners and downtown residents who are not being represented by the DLC,” she said. “The CID represents them.”
Two different districts
The two groups also are responsible for areas with different boundaries. The Improvement District encompasses an area roughly bounded by Providence Road, Park Avenue and Hitt and Elm streets; while the Leadership Council studies an area bounded by Garth Avenue, Business Loop 70, Old 63 and Conley Avenue.
Treece said that makes a merger problematic. "There's significant parts of the charrette that are not part of the CID."
Treece cited the former Osco at 111 S. Providence Road as a development issue only the Leadership Council can address. The Osco site, vacant for seven years, was in the news in November because owner Stan Kroenke allowed its use for construction storage, in violation of city code. Mayor Bob McDavid called the site “a blight in the middle of Columbia.”
Walther agreed the boundaries must be addressed and said the Improvement District's borders aren't necessarily permanent.
The City Council on Dec. 19 directed staff to discuss its recommendations with all sitting boards before making a move. Matthes called the recommendations “another step in a long conversation.”
Walther noted that any merger between the Leadership Council and the Improvement District would need both parties' consent.
“I don’t think an involuntary blending would be good for either board,” Walther said. “In the next few months, the members of both boards will meet to see if we can come up with a common set of goals. I certainly expect this process to be cooperative to the maximum extent possible.”