Main Street stumps for bigger budget

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer October 24, 2012 01:42 pm

The La Grande Main Street Program was a key player in the design of the “Big H” downtown improvement project that includes a rebuild of sidewalks and alley accesses, installation of street furniture, and more. The photo above reflects some of the upgrades. Main Street is looking to keep downtown revitalization going with the establishment of an economic improvement district. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH - The Observer
The La Grande Main Street Program was a key player in the design of the “Big H” downtown improvement project that includes a rebuild of sidewalks and alley accesses, installation of street furniture, and more. The photo above reflects some of the upgrades. Main Street is looking to keep downtown revitalization going with the establishment of an economic improvement district. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH - The Observer

Non-profit group lays out its proposal to city council for creation of economic improvement district downtown 

Members of La Grande Main Street appeared at a La Grande City Council work session Monday night, presenting a case for an economic improvement district to help pay the costs of making downtown a vibrant place for retailers and shoppers. 

The non-profit, all-volunteer group working to foster a healthy business climate in the city’s core is asking the council to approve formation of a district that would assess commercial properties within the boundaries at .3 percent of the county-assessed real market value. The district must be established by a city council ordinance.

The $80,000 raised through assessments would go toward various Main Street activities, including promotions and events, landscape and maintenance, business retention and recruitment. The money would also help pay the salary of a full time Main Street director.

Carol Campbell, chair of Main Street’s Downtown Improvement Steering Committee, told the council her group can’t accomplish its mission on the limited funds now available.

“The only other choice we have is fundraising, and fundraising is hard,” Campbell said when asked whether Main Street has an alternative strategy if the district doesn’t go through.

John Howard, a local Realtor and member of Main Street’s board of directors, gave a slideshow laying out the proposal. His talk included a description of proposed district boundaries, taking in Adams, Washington and Jefferson avenues from Second Street to Island Avenue. The district would also include some properties in an area northwest of Fourth Street.

Howard said that assessed properties would not exceed $500,000 in real market value. He also said the assessment is not a tax, but rather an assessment for services received. He added that the assessment would be tax deductible as a business expense.

Howard’s presentation projected Main Street’s annual budget at $127,500, including the revenue from district assessments. Main Street would spend $50,000 on personnel and administration. Currently the program is administered by Alana Garner, a Resource Assistance for Rural Environments intern whose current term of service runs out July 2013.

During work session discussion, the Main Street members fielded some tough questions from Councilor John Bozarth. For one thing, Bozarth wanted more detail on an item in the projected budget setting Main Street’s maintenance costs at $45,000.

Campbell answered that the money would pay for maintenance services over and above those already paid out of the city’s budget. As examples, she cited higher electricity costs associated with new lighting being installed downtown, and a need for more trash removal with the recent installation of additional trash cans.

City Manager Robert Strope added a clarifying comment about the maintenance costs.

“If Main Street is asking for a higher level of services than we’re providing, then the businesses will help pay for them,” he said.

Bozarth also said that he had been talking with some property owners in the proposed district who question being assessed when they already pay membership dues in Main Street.

“They feel like they’re being asked to pay twice,” he said.

Howard answered that Main Street has held a couple of public meetings in an effort to communicate with those who would be assessed. He also said he knows there is opposition to overcome.

“To be honest I think there’s some struggle with property owners. I think there needs to be more discussion with them,” he said, but added that many want to be a part of a stronger business district.

Strope spent considerable time talking about the process the council will follow. He noted that the effort to start a district can be defeated “by remonstrance,” meaning that no district can be formed if written objections are received from owners of properties upon which more than 33 percent of the total amount of assessments is levied. 

Strope said property owners within the proposed district will receive one letter presenting Main Street’s proposal for assessments and boundaries. Then on Dec. 5, the council will hold a public hearing.

The council will use input gathered at the hearing to formulate a proposed ordinance for the district. A second letter will go out detailing the city’s district proposal and setting Jan. 16 as a date for another public hearing.

Written remonstrances will be accepted from Dec. 5 through the end of the Jan. 16 hearing. They will be tallied at the end of the second hearing.

“If we reach that 33 percent threshold, we’re done,” Strope said.