ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A Business Improvement District, also known as a “BID,” has been proposed to Rochester City Council by Rochester Mayor Malik Evan’s office. It’s an initiative being met with concern from local advocates who say a BID doesn’t belong in Rochester.

Historically, a BID is meant to bring folks back downtown. Similar initiatives started after suburban malls came into popularity in the 1970s. However, the idea of a BID is not new to downtown Rochester. It was proposed back in 2011, and it was shot down. However now, with a whole new set of people in local government, a BID is up for debate again, but those in the downtown art scene are sounding the alarm.

The effort is labeled “Introductory 255” in the mayor’s proposals. During last week’s city council meeting, the BID was discussed at length.

“Introductory 255 is going to be held in committee. But we might as well start the debate now,” said City Councilmember Michael Patterson.

Mayor Malik Evans and city councilmembers both stated this proposal is only a preliminary, exploratory phase in the BID’s potential development.

“I think it’s important for the public to note that really this is introductory that is exploring the possibility of a BID. It is not authorizing the execution of starting a BID,” Rochester City Council President Miguel Melendez said.

“We are so far away from authorizing or doing anything as it relates to a BID. That process could take two years to do something like this so the first step is to at least have an exploratory conversation about what the entity would look like with the community and I hope we can do that in short order so that people can feel comfortable,” Mayor Evans said.

However, community advocates argue this proposal moving through the city council in a vote next month will only solidify a BID coming to Rochester under the guidance of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, known as the RDDC.

Amanda Chestnut is a community advocate and artist in Rochester. They say what is being introduced to city council is not an exploratory phase. Chestnut said a lot of time and planning has already been put into the initiative.

“Looking at the notes from RDDC, what is actually being proposed to city council is the initiation of the process for implementing a business improvement district. So they’ve already moved past the research. And they’re not necessarily even looking for community feedback,” Chestnut said.

However, the city council emphasized they are interested in community engagement during the process. Chestnut said their past experience with the RDDC has not been positive.

“We’ve actually foil requested the minutes from their meetings and the notes and the information and based on their timeline, none of that is built in,” Chestnut said. “Even if there is potential for community feedback down the road, I have no faith that they will implement any of the things that we’ve suggested.”

Advocates and city councilmembers both expressed concerns about a BID rising rent prices for local businesses in order to fund services a BID traditionally provides. Services such as added security.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the RDDC’s new CEO, Galin Brooks took questions from council, including who a BID would affect.

“Do you have a rough idea of what you think this map might look like?” Councilmember Patterson asked Brooks. “I do not,” Brooks responded.

However, Chestnut said that’s not the case.

“In the initial proposal that was talked about to us by the RDDC this spring, the area for the business improvement district that they had recommended was essentially the same footprint of what the inner loop had used to be. Once I realized that it was really frustrating and saddening to me because it’s essentially a 21st-century form of redlining,” Chestnut said.

Rochester Chamber of Commerce President Bob Duffy stated in a release his support for a BID downtown.

“Aside from great investments, edifices, and attractions, one critical need for downtown is safety, and most importantly, the perception of safety. At one time, Rochester had a group of retired police officers called the Red Shirts who walked and biked downtown. They gave directions, were helpful, and also provided a sense of security. These Red Shirts were removed during the last administration, but they are being discussed to come back through the BID. I would support that decision. If more people are on the streets, there’s less likelihood of having negative incidents happen. We need more activity in our downtown, and I believe with all the projects and forces coming together, we’re going to see that,” Duffy wrote in a blog post.

The Red Shirts are the same group Chestnut said “harassed” city residents in the past.

“We have people in the city who drink muddy water. But they want to spend how many hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring back Red Shirts? I’ve spoken to many black leaders who only remember the red shirts harassing them when they were kids. They weren’t there to help, they were there to harass and push out black people. But we have people drinking dirty water in the city for survival. There are so many things that could be done with that money to create actual real safety. Working to create an impression of safety means they are not creating safety for the people who already reside here. They are creating safety for people who want to come in from the outside, and downtown is not a zoo. We’re not zoo animals. We live here, we work here. We love this space. And we deserve real true safety, not just the impression of safety that’s caused by harassment,” Chestnut said.

If the exploratory phase of the BID passes city council, and the BID starts spending money, some city council members and advocates worry that it will snowball into something that can’t be undone.  

“I’m aware that after two or five years worth of effort, it’s kind of hard to say, ‘eh nevermind,’” Rochester City Councilmember Mary Lupien said.

Advocates say the vote ahead of city council is not a vote to “get more info” but a vote to “move forward.” Chestnut and their colleagues explain that if this proposal passes, the BID will be filed with the clerk and, once that happens, property owners in the BID’s radius will have thirty days to object. But that doesn’t include business owners who pay rent in those buildings.

“Looking again, at the RDDC’s plans, there is a chance that within five years [up to] a 20% increase in tax can be levied on these property owners. If a property owner gets an extra 20% tax, that’s going to be passed on to the tenants. What’s that going to do to a new bookstore? Or a single barber shop?  Or a small mom-and-pop diner? Or any one of a number of galleries and art spaces? These are the things that we already love about downtown and could be absolutely crushed by this,” Chestnut said. “People who are planning this, then they can say, ‘Look, a business improvement district is a good thing. We’ve done all of this great stuff.’ But when you actually take a look at their notes, they’re not planning anything that has a lasting community impact. They’re planning window dressings, and art washing to tidy up for a year or two, get what they want, and then leave the arts in the dust.”

Community activists will be speaking at the city council meeting on Tuesday, July 19 regarding the BID’s proposal. The proposal is currently being held in committee and it is expected to be voted on sometime next month.