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While We Wait (for) Downtown

March 21st, 2006 by dk

If all goes according to plan, Whole Foods will open its doors downtown in time for Christmas. That would be Christmas 2007. That’s a long time to wait for the still-long-awaited turnaround for downtown. The proposed Connor-Woolley-Opus project, if it’s approved, can be expected to be larger and later.

What do we do in the meantime? Sure, we’ll busy ourselves with differing viewpoints about the police and city hall. The federal courthouse will open and some roads will be moved around. Maybe some local hospitals will create some interesting news. EmX will begin to change how people get around. The construction boom will continue on campus.

But life in the middle of downtown won’t change much in the coming year, unless we decide they will change. Here’s a suggestion. Turn Downtown Eugene Inc.’s funding formula upside down.

Downtown Eugene, Inc. (DEI) is downtown Eugene’s business association, funded by downtown property owners. Their stated mission is to create and maintain a safe, clean and economically viable city center. The organization’s current budget of $260,000 is portioned across five goals:

1. Advocate for public/private partnership to achieve a thriving downtown.

2. Use four full-time “downtown guides” to provide visible [security] presence and excellent member service.

3. Use brand marketing to create positive perceptions about downtown.

4. Increase member involvement through member communication and committees.

5. Efficiently operate the organization.

The city collects a fee from each downtown property owner and passes 90 percent of the fees to DEI as a nonprofit business association to fund these activities. It’s important that these fees not be construed as a tax or an assessment, because Measure 5 caps how much tax can be assessed to Oregon properties. To avoid any ambiguity about these fees, the fees are related to the activity inside the building, not the building itself.

The fee formula considers the square footage of a building, whether it’s a commercial use, and its proximity to the downtown core. Unless the building is unoccupied, because then the fee is zero.

As long as downtown is struggling with the dark side of life, the dark buildings should be the ones that incur the fees for the downtown business association. If the mission is to create and maintain a safe, clean and economically viable city center, those property owners who work their property or keep it filled with life and commerce are already doing their part.

Surface parking is likewise not subject to the DEI fee. Police report that parking lots after dark see plenty of business transactions; they just don’t happen to be the legal ones.

Some California cities have imposed a vacancy tax to penalize landowners who allow their properties to languish, but a tax cannot be assessed in Oregon without running up against Measure 5 caps. If the legal eagles who advise DEI have determined that a fee can be attached to business activity, why can’t the same logic be applied to the absence of business activity?

Later, when DEI is spending its time on crowd control, keeping all the happy shoppers and tourists from stepping all over each other, then the current funding formula will make sense. But as it is right now, empty buildings cost DEI the most, but earn DEI nothing.

Will some building owners rush to fill their empty buildings to avoid paying the fees imposed on vacancies? If enough buildings were filled and attracting customers, the need for “downtown guides” would practically disappear.

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