Even some of Fort Wayne’s movers and shakers wonder: What does the DID do?
Survey results presented to the Downtown Improvement District in late August found that many respondents don’t understand the organization’s mission.
And these weren’t randomly selected residents. The 100 people invited to participate were carefully chosen early this year to represent people most involved and interested in the 91 blocks designated as downtown.
Although the group’s marketing challenge is significant, it’s not the biggest issue the 14-member board faces.
DID leaders are considering whether the organization should continue beyond 2015, when its 10-year reauthorization expires. And, if DID does go on, should it focus more on wooing businesses to open downtown or catering to employers already located there?
Those decisions are complicated even further by current negotiations between DID and Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the economic development organization created this year with the union of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance.
DID wasn’t included in the merger because, as a quasi-governmental agency created by state statute, it collects taxes from businesses that operate in a designated area. There would be legal implications if it joined with two nonprofits.
But local officials want to fold the DID’s activities into the new organization as much as possible.
DID’s board is in negotiations that could lead it to pay the organization’s entire annual budget to Greater Fort Wayne which, in turn, would hire DID staff to carry out DID’s mission.
The contorted arrangement would allow DID to continue assessing an additional tax on businesses within the district while directing that the money be spent only on goods and services that benefit that limited downtown area.
DID’s mission statement now includes a commitment to creating “a strong, economically vibrant urban core of the northeast Indiana region through special events and marketing, beautification efforts, and advocacy and business development.”
The organization also professes a belief in Fort Wayne’s development, growth and sustainability. DID officials say they “are constantly looking for ways to improve Downtown Fort Wayne.”
If the board decides DID should continue, it will have to wrestle with several issues, including:
•How should member businesses’ assessments be calculated? Should assessments automatically increase or remain stagnant throughout the reauthorization period?
•How long should the reauthorization last? The previous two have been for 10 years, but is that too long?
•How should DID measure Greater Fort Wayne’s performance?
DID’s board will wrestle with those issues in coming months, much as it struggled for weeks to create a draft contract that details how the organization could work with Greater Fort Wayne.
That formal contract has been delayed in favor of a memorandum of understanding that will demonstrate the two organizations’ commitment to each other even as Greater Fort Wayne continues to assemble its board and other infrastructure.
After all that, two groups can still scuttle DID’s reauthorization: business owners within the district and the City Council.
Re-approval requires support from 50 percent – plus one – of the downtown property owners representing at least 66.6 percent of the total assessed property value in the district.
How it all started
Just 20 years ago, downtown Fort Wayne was very different from the area that attracts baseball fans and convention-goers now.
Some business owners were frustrated by the graffiti and litter that discouraged potential customers from spending the day downtown.
But they were too busy running shops and offices to push brooms, plant flowers or plan block parties. Instead, business owners were willing to pool resources to hire someone to coordinate those things.
Former Mayor Paul Helmke signed an ordinance that created a special downtown taxing district in September 1995. Businesses in the district agreed to pay an extra assessment on top of regular property taxes.
Paula Hughes was hired as the first executive director in 1998. At the time, relatively modest goals called for organizing an art fair and hanging 300 new holiday banners from downtown street lights.
She left the organization after six years, prompting calls for a replacement who would build community partnerships rather than follow in Hughes’ footsteps as a one-person-juggernaut.
A few months later, George Huber, then-president of the board, said the DID needed to shift from focusing solely on attracting residents to visit downtown to focusing on “attracting jobs, businesses and investment.”
Those comments were made leading up to the group’s 2005 reauthorization process. At the time, the DID included about 200 member businesses who contributed a combined $150,000 a year.
Dan Carmody, the second director, was hired in October 2005, just as the DID was going through its first charter renewal.
DID’s board made economic development Carmody’s mission. It also got the City Council to more than double its area, which doubled DID’s annual budget without increasing individual assessments.
Such wholesale changes are possible during reauthorization.
The organization’s evolution has been bumpy at times.
As recently as 2006, the DID’s bylaws didn’t require an annual meeting, set term limits for board members or spell out a nominating process for new board members. Only recently did the organization distribute public notice before public meetings.
Carmody spent only two years in the job. He was succeeded by Rich Davis, who resigned in June 2012 after facing harsh scrutiny from the City Council for what it said was his failure to develop strong working relationships with member businesses.
Bill Brown, a business owner and Allen County councilman, was named interim director immediately after Davis’s resignation. He was offered a long-term position early this year.
Various changes in leadership haven’t helped the DID present a coherent image to the public, including those who are most involved with downtown.
Sharon Feasel, who works in the city’s community development division, is Fort Wayne’s liaison to the DID.
She conducted a survey on the DID’s performance and looked at its strategic focus. The core question was how the DID could measure performance and demonstrate its value. The resulting paper fulfilled a graduate school requirement for Feasel, so she offered the report to the organization at no cost.
Of the 100 stakeholders who were invited to take an online survey, 59 completed it. Of those, 15 were interviewed face-to-face.
Results showed that the organization scored highly for organizing special events and keeping things clean and attractive.
At the other end of the spectrum, participants didn’t think of the DID as a strong advocate for downtown businesses or as a leader on downtown parking and transportation issues.
Interviewees thought the DID’s role needs to be clarified and shared with the general public.
Feasel noted in her report that no local group is now responsible for downtown business development. That’s a role, she said, that the DID could fill.
Information that business improvement districts typically keep includes a complete roster of buildings in the district, annual investment information, jobs sector and income data, housing availability and occupancy rates.
Producing an annual report including that and other information could help the DID demonstrate its value to businesses, the summary stated.
DID’s lukewarm report card, as prepared by Feasel, shows the organization might need to do some serious work before it can count on widespread support among its member businesses.