2021 | Government

Concerns raised about proposed Silver Spring business improvement district

Hucker, Riemer introduced bill in January

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Some County Council members and partners in a proposed Silver Spring business improvement district have expressed concerns about its structure and how it would try to better the downtown.

In January, County Council President Tom Hucker and Council Member Hans Riemer introduced a bill that proposed a business improvement district, or BID, for downtown Silver Spring.

The BID’s goal would be to improve the business climate and marketing of downtown Silver Spring, by replacing some of the marketing and promotion responsibilities of the Silver Spring Urban District.

Currently, the Silver Spring Urban District covers downtown Silver Spring. The county funds the urban district through a tax assessed on properties in densely populated, unincorporated areas of the county: Silver Spring, Bethesda and Wheaton.

Those taxes help maintain streetscaping, provide public amenities and promote the arts, culture and overall programming in those areas.

Currently, the Silver Spring Urban District currently has a team of “Red Shirt” ambassadors who provide security, clean the downtown area, repair public walkways and provide general information. The urban district also does marketing and promotes and sponsors events, like the summer festival and annual jazz festival, according to its website.

Riemer said in an interview Friday that the BID proposal would shift some of the county’s urban district taxes fund into the control of property owners in the district. Property owners in the BID would be governed by a board of directors who would decide on a tax rate for the district and how that money should be used.

“It’s sort of a unique dynamic, where we have an existing structure that is doing work that people feel can be done a lot better,” Riemer said of replacing some responsibilities of the urban district with the BID.

Riemer said property owners within the proposed BID could do a better job of marketing and promotions than how the county currently runs the urban district.

But some aspects of the urban district might remain, like cleaning, and general information for guests and visitors. Maintenance and patrolling would be left to the “Red Shirt” ambassadors and the urban district, he added.

Per state law, a petition signed by property owners who own at least 51% of the assessed value of all properties within the proposed BID must be submitted to the County Council before legislation can be produced, Riemer said. Some of those property owners are known as applicants. 

Some applicants on the Silver Spring BID are Foulger-Pratt, a real estate firm; Peterson Companies, a real estate developer; and United Therapeutics, a biotech company, according to council staff documents.

During a joint meeting of two County Council committees on Thursday, some council members and partners said there were problems with the current proposal.

Riemer acknowledged that discussions would not be easy in the coming months, especially given tension between small and large property owners in Silver Spring.

“The history of Silver Spring is a history of large investments and large properties being developed, and creating very successful environments, and then nearby, small property owners sort of wondering when the success was going to spill out to them,” Riemer said. 

Council Member Will Jawando said he’s talked to many small business owners who would be in the BID and who were worried about the governance structure. 

According to the racial equity and social justice and impact statement by the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, “All eight members of the proposed board of directors for the [Silver Spring] BID would represent commercial property and business owners.”

According to the BID application, the following are the proposed Board of Directors:

  • Paul Nazelrod, Washington Property Companies  
  • Damon Callis, Urban Winery  
  • Thomas Kaufman, United Therapeutics 
  • Teika Haymon, Foulger-Pratt 
  • Gary Brewer, GBT City Place 
  • Andrew Jones, Brookfield 
  • Mussie Betre, Bankers Courier 
  • Emma Whelan, Astro Lab Brewing

Jawando suggested the BID’s board of directors be more diverse — perhaps nonprofit leaders, community organizers, small business owners and others instead of all commercial property owners.

He said he likely will propose an amendment that protects the current work of the “Red Shirt” ambassadors from being eliminated by the BID.

In an interview Friday, Riemer said the BID bill isn’t meant to remove the “Red Shirts,” and that he supports Jawando’s amendment.

Steve Silverman, a former council member and current lobbyist who represented the BID applicants at Thursday’s meeting, said it’s important to look at how much funding is used for marketing and promotions and how that funding is being used. 

He said County Executive Marc Elrich’s office needs to provide more detailed information on the funding of the Silver Spring Urban District, so future decisions about the BID can be based on data, and not anecdotes or speculation.

It’s taken “herculean efforts” from Riemer and Hucker to get that information, he said. Currently, the urban district has a budget of $3.9 million. Of that, $2.1 million goes to personnel, Silverman said. 

It’s unclear how the county and Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Committee is spending the other $1.8 million, he added.

The advisory committee consists of 11 community members appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the County Council, according to its website. Its members’ connections range from the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce to business and community representatives. 

County Council Member Nancy Navarro agreed, saying the council must have basic information from the county executive’s office to help decide the BID structure.

Ken Hartman, director of strategic partnerships in Elrich’s office, said that information would be provided in the coming weeks. 

He said the county executive “completely supports the view to go in a different direction in Silver Spring,” but added that Elrich opposes having large property owners make up most or all of the BID’s governing structure. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com