Downtown store, property owners voice frustration over deteriorating relationship between group, city
Downtown Port Washington business and property owners expressed their frustration with the deteriorating relationship between the city and Port Main Street Inc., an organization devoted to promoting the downtown, last week during a meeting intended to set goals for the group.
The city’s decision not to make its traditional $25,000 contribution to Main Street in response to what officials characterized as the mismanagement of money used to host the Rock the Harbor Harley-Davidson anniversary celebration in August.
“We had one bad event, but how about all the good ones?” asked Main Street board member Marcia Endicott, who said the city has treated the group “very poorly” in the wake of Rock the Harbor.
The festival lost roughly $20,000, but despite that fact, some people at the meeting called the event a success because it drew many people to the city and the businesses downtown.
Several of the roughly 50 business owners were so frustrated they said the Business Improvement District, which funds Main Street via an assessment on downtown properties, should be dissolved, effectively ending funding for Main Street. In its place, they said, a voluntary merchants’ association could be created to serve downtown.
“If we have a voluntary organization, we don’t have to have the city tell us what we’re doing,” said Jim Vollmar, an owner of the Port Harbor Center.
Vollmar said Monday that some property owners have circulated a petition to dissolve the BID, adding he believes there are enough signatures to file it with the city.
“There are a lot of business people who are angry,” he said.
A petition seeking to dissolve the BID must be signed by property owners whose buildings make up half the equalized valuation of the district — a figure Vollmar said is $17 million.
But Neil Tiziani, president of the BID board, said the organization is important to downtown.
“I think that (filing a petition) is a mistake,” he said. “The same people who signed the petition will be back in two or three years yelling at the city that we need to do something that will focus on downtown.
“A lot of progress has been made in the past two or three years. We don’t want to throw that away.”
Vollmar said business owners’ anger stems from city actions, starting this summer with Mayor Tom Mlada’s recommendation that the Main Street board give full voting rights to three ex-officio members.
At the Oct. 31 meeting, Vollmar took exception to many of the city’s actions, especially the fact that the Common Council on Tuesday approved the BID tax, which is imposed on downtown buildings, without having the organization’s operating plan for the coming year.
Vollmar advocated filing a petition to disband the BID, adding it could be withdrawn if the plan is something the business owners support, he said.
“The city’s got to understand they have to cooperate with us,” Vollmar said. “They can’t use our money the way they want to use it. We have to make sure it’s used correctly.”
The city needs to make its $25,000 contribution to Main Street if it wants to be a partner in the organization, he added.
“If the city won’t put $25,000 in, why should the building owners (finance it)?” Vollmar asked. “This is economic development for the city.”
City Administrator Mark Grams noted that the $25,000 is still in the proposed 2014 budget but no longer earmarked for Main Street. The city can still tap it for downtown projects, he said.
“I think what the council’s waiting for is to see what happens with Main Street and with BID,” Grams said. “Things have been running fairly smoothly over the last couple years. This year, we hit a bump. We’re trying to get through it.”
Vollmar also said the city needs to treat business owners better.
“We are owed an apology, then we can talk about whether to have a BID,” he said, citing the city’s criticism of the Main Street board in the aftermath of Rock the Harbor.
“Why would the city berate a bunch of volunteers who are trying to do something for the good of the city?” he asked. “That one bad event should not change everything.”
Not everyone agreed that dissolving the BID is an effective strategy.
John Weinrich, owner of NewPort Shores restaurant, suggested the BID could operate but not disperse funds until the organization has come up with a plan everyone could support.
“To make a decision on getting rid of the BID is probably not a good thing to do,” said Doug McManus, an owner of the building that houses Twisted Willow restaurant. “We’re used to paying that tax. Why not give it a year and let things settle down?
“There’s a lot of distrust right now.”
Members of the BID board, noting Main Street’s precarious financial position since Rock the Harbor, have said they would consider taking over the Main Street program while it gets its finances and goals in order.
“The intent would not be that BID would be Main Street forever,” said Wayne Chrusciel, owner of Fireworks Popcorn and a BID board member.
Tiziani said there is value in both groups and the board wants to preserve that.
“The BID we have now is interested in fixing the problems there are,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of great things that have come from it.”
At Thursday’s meeting, the business and building owners came up with a list of five things they want the group to work on.
The top item was improved communications, followed by downtown events, beautification, improved website and a marketing and branding campaign.