ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — This summer, Rochester Mayor Malik Evans proposed a Business Improvement District, also known as a “BID” to city council.
Tuesday evening, city council voted 6-3 to move forward with the plans. That vote gives the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation the go-ahead to start creating their district plan.
Local arts advocates say they caught wind of the BID proposal when they thought the funding for the project would be going to them. Those arts advocates include Kelly Cheatle, the artistic director for Airigami, and Amanda Chestnut, a local artist and educator.
“We wanted to find out what these funds were being used for. So if they’re being used for art, is there a way to make this project more accessible and more equitable to the community at large? And in that process, we found out that the funding was being used to show what a BID could do,” Cheatle said.
Now, Cheatle and Chestnut say this is a measure the city is trying to pass by quietly. They say if more people knew about it, more people would be concerned. During an attempt to inform the community last Thursday, those advocates say the city stripped them of their voice.
For background, a Business Improvement District is traditionally meant to bring more business to downtown by providing added services that would help make that happen. Those services are determined by the need at the time but could include things like added security or sanitation. Those local arts advocates who are presumably among the groups that would benefit say the needed improvements can be done without a new organization. They fear the implementation of a BID would raise rent prices for small business owners and that those provided services may hurt more people than it helps.
“If they’re saying that downtown needs to be tidier, we’re surrounded by city maintenance workers who are watering the flowers, and picking up garbage and cleaning off stickers. We already have that service going. If there are areas of the city downtown that aren’t being covered, why not just expand that district? And if the district isn’t working for some of the developers, well, they can get in line with the rest of us. And they can advocate for making those changes. But they shouldn’t codify a direct line to council any more than they already have,” Cheatle said.
If the introductory proposal for a Business Improvement District does pass through city council Tuesday night, the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation will be the leading entity to drive the process forward. President and CEO of the RDDC, Galin Brooks says a part of the reason a BID had been proposed in the first place was to provide a management entity to the Roc the Riverway program.
“Business improvement districts are tried and true tools to facilitate recovery for downtowns that have experienced some disinvestment. It’s really to build on pre-existing energy and enthusiasm for downtown and to provide and be a steward of inclusive thriving places,” Brooks said.
Last Thursday, the city of Rochester hosted a forum to help give the community more insight into the potential BID, as well as allow community members to express their concerns. This meeting was supposed to be streamed online according to the city’s flier. However, when it came time for the forum, advocates say cameras were taken out of the room.
“We had told people that were interested in learning more information that they didn’t have to come to the meeting, that they could go take care of their businesses, they could take care of their families and still be informed [by watching the forum online]. And instead, when they took the cameras out of the room, Patterson pushed forward with the meeting,” Cheatle said.
Michael Patterson serves the Rochester City Council as chair of the Neighborhood and Business Development Committee, meaning the discussion of a BID falls under his guidance. News 8 did reach out to Patterson and city council at large for comment on the events that took place during last week’s forum. Both have yet to respond.
“You’re telling us that you’re going to provide an equitable and accessible process. And in the room, where we needed people who were in power to stand up for us, and for them to create accessibility or demand accessibility? They were silent. That doesn’t create trust,” Cheatle said.
Also at the city’s BID forum last week, one activist who is part of the Deaf community requested an interpreter in order to speak. M Winegarner confirmed with the city that an interpreter would be available for them, but when it came time for them to speak, an interpreter was not present.
“Thursday’s meeting was an absolute embarrassment. I was so mad that they [city council] would tell us that would be an accessible meeting. They had the gall to not have an interpreter there, despite having someone in the deaf community, having requested an interpreter. It’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for them to do that. And then they think that they can say, “Well, this has been an equitable process so far,’” Chestnut said, “If you’ve literally violated the Americans with Disabilities Act so far. How on earth can we trust you that this will be an equitable and accessible process going forward?”
The mayor’s office and city council have confirmed that during this potential exploratory process of a BID, community engagement will be at the core to make sure everyone is on board. Brooks with the RDDC said New York State law outlines the need for community engagement, but that it is her mission that “constructive” and “exhaustive” community feedback exists within the process regardless of the activist’s previous experience with the city.
“We are excited and eager to start that dialogue and to really ensure that everyone’s at the table and that all the feedback and thoughts are captured in a way that creates a plan that lifts up downtown and the entire city,” Brooks said.