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DID’s big ideas may mean seeking nonprofit gifts

– Some local nonprofits could soon be asked to help support the Downtown Improvement District, the organization that promotes downtown Fort Wayne.

Seeking “fair share” contributions from churches, arts organizations and schools within the defined area is one strategy used by similar organizations in other cities, an out-of-state consultant told DID board members Tuesday.

Although staff with two of those organizations said they value the services DID provides, they declined to speculate on whether their boards would approve making an annual contribution.

Jamie Licko, founder and president of Denver-based Centro Inc., reviewed with DID board members the structures and services of similar organizations in other cities.

Asking nonprofits to support the organization was just one of numerous options she offered to the group during a two-hour workshop.

The DID is a quasi-governmental agency created by state statute to promote, beautify and advocate for downtown Fort Wayne. The agency – one of 1,200 similar organizations in North America – collects taxes from property owners in a designated area.

A majority of ratepayers and City Council members must approve before the organization can be reauthorized. DID’s second 10-year charter expires at the end of 2015.

Licko is a former executive director of the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Downtown District and former associate for a national downtown development consulting group.

Among options outlined in her slideshow were:

•Hiring ambassadors to direct downtown visitors

•Planting vegetable gardens at bus stops

•Taking over parking management from city officials

•Creating “parklets” in blocked-off areas as small as one parking space

•Adopting an assessment structure that allows for increases based on inflation

Licko presented the options as things for the group to consider.

“I’m not seeing or advocating that you need to change anything,” she said.

Board members expressed surprise at the possibility that nonprofits could be a source of financial support for the DID. None of them indicated whether they would support such an option, however.

Calls to two downtown nonprofits after the meeting found that the DID has built goodwill with them.

Susan Mendenhall, president of Arts United, said her organization partners with DID on various activities, including arts-related events that help make downtown a hub of activity.

But she declined to speculate on whether the nonprofit would or could contribute part of its more than $2 million annual budget to the DID.

That decision would be made by Arts United board members.

Likewise, numerous people have to sign off on spending at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which also lies within the district’s 91-block boundary.

But John Renz, the cathedral’s business manager and buildings and grounds assistant, said he could support contributing to the DID “if we were to find money in the budget.”

Renz declined to say how much the Catholic church’s annual budget is.

If the cathedral were to make a donation, however, Renz would like to see specifics about how the religious organization would benefit.

Renz was surprised to learn that the DID’s downtown property assessment has been capped at $300,000 annually for the past 10 years. The flat assessment rate has forced the DID to be smarter about how it accomplishes its mission over the years, DID officials have said.

“If they’re going to continue to offer the same level of service,” Renz said, “the budget has to go up at least by the rate of inflation.”

The next step includes gathering input from property owners to learn their priorities and which services they’re willing to pay for.

Licko is in town until Thursday.