BID for the DTM? What we can learn from Vermonters

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The Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont, a pedestrian mall similar to the DTM, may have some ideas we should borrow. Photo by AlexiusHoratius

Our DTM is a wonderful place, one of a few such successful pedestrian malls in the country, but on a recent trip to Burlington, Vermont’s Church Street Marketplace, a pedestrian mall similar to the DTM, one downtown business owner came away wondering if we might be able to learn a thing or two from our neighbors to the North.

“There seems to be the conventional wisdom that our mall is the best,” says Mark Brown, owner of the Main Street Arena, “but a walk down Church Street screamed that while our mall has a lot of good things it could certainly be more than it is.”

Burlington’s mall, says Brown, had a mix of local and national businesses that made their mall more of a destination for all types of dining and shopping.

“They’ve done this while maintaining a very relaxed and eclectic vibe, it was impressive,” says Brown. ” Church Street is something more people should be aware of.”

City Councilor Dave Norris, whose mother is a Vermonter, has visited several times. While he doesn’t think Church Street has much of a lead on the DTM when it comes to its architecture and layout, he says they do a much better job of marketing themselves, organizing activities along the mall, and promoting businesses there.

“I chalk much of that up to the fact that Church Street is a Business Improvement District (BID), where self-generated revenue is used for these kinds of purposes,” says Norris. ” I have long supported the idea of a BID for downtown Charlottesville and I am starting to see signs that it might finally be resuscitated.”

Indeed, unlike the DTM, Church Street has an organizing body with real power to implement policy, and manage and promote the district. Like the DTM, Church Street has had the same issues with panhandling, homelessness, and controlling disruptive behavior so that people feel comfortable and safe. The difference is they’ve been able to implement programs that have made things better.

“If it’s not safe and clean, then it’s not fun,” says Church Street’s executive director Ron Redmon. “Focus on the first two and the fun is a natural outcome.  And our Community Policing program has made the biggest difference for our Street.”

Indeed, Church Street actually has a 4-person “Street Outreach Team” made up of social workers who act as liaisons between businesses on the street and the Burlington Police Department, helping to defuse situations before the police have to get involved. They offer “support to individuals with psychiatric disabilities, substance abuse problems, homelessness issues and unmet social service needs,” according to program literature. The City also recently passed a new trespassing ordinance, which means if you’re cited for unlawful behavior, public intoxication, or disorderly conduct anywhere in the district, you can be kicked off the street for the day. If you get cited again, you’re banned for 90 days. A third offense, you get banned for up to a year.

Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo says he’s aware of Burlington’s program, and he intends to contact the Chief of Police in Burlington to learn more.

“Our social services director visited there last year while on her vacation and had some positive comments,” says Longo.

Church Street has also tackled the issue of panhandling with a public information campaign aimed at people who might be inclined to give money. The literature encourages people not to feel guilty about saying “no,” and points out that much of what they give can go to alcohol and drugs. As an alternative, there are “drop boxes” on Church Street (that look like alligators with their mouths open) where people can deposit change and bills that will go toward funding social services in the area.

“Every downtown is different,” says Redmond. “We do share some similarities, of course.  But solutions must come from your stakeholders getting together and talking it out.  Steal from others for ideas and strategies, but you’ll have to put a home-grown spin on it.”

According to Norris, there has been some movement on finally creating a BID for the DTM.

“No formal proposal has emerged yet that I’m aware of, but in general it seems to be getting a pretty good reception so far among property owners at least,” says Norris. ” As you may recall, we almost had a BID about 10 years ago but there was some controversy about how large the proposed district was and the proposal died on the vine.”

“It’s obvious that the government of Burlington and the business owners work together to improve their downtown, and they’re achieved results that are in many ways superior to what we’ve achieved so far,” says Brown. “The City and the downtown business owners need to work together to solve issues involving parking, panhandling, public safety, and marketing the place better.”

Links to Burlington initiatives:

Church Street Community Policing Program

Panhandling Outreach

Church Street Tresspassing Ordinance

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