We in Kingston love our city and take pride in its rich amenities—the wonderful local businesses, beautiful residential districts, historic Uptown area, vibrant arts community, seasonal Farmers’ Market, and numerous cultural attractions, not to mention the magnificent Rondout waterfront, bustling with recreational boaters in the warmer months. It’s no secret, however, that driving down sections of Broadway is a downer, for both residents and strangers discovering Kingston for the first time. Recent outbreaks of graffiti have further denigrated the appearance of our Midtown business district, and perennial problems such as a dearth of trash baskets on the city’s sidewalks has aggravated the problem of neglected-looking streets.
The Business Alliance of Kingston (BAK), which represents businesses and property owners from the city’s three business districts, is on a mission to reverse the escalating commercial vacancy rate and improve the appearance of Kingston’s business districts. Last Thursday, May 3, it held the first in a series of public meetings at the Seven21 Media Center to build support for a Business Improvement District, or BID, which would help clean up the Broadway corridor from St. James Street down to the Rondout. The meeting was attended by several area business owners as well as two aldermen (or a representative, in one case).
As the two-year Main Street Manager program, which is administered by BAK, winds down this summer, the BID would be the next step in BAK’s efforts to strengthen the city’s business environment and combat the problem of empty storefronts. BAK began working on the initiative starting in November 2009, when it retained the services of two consultants, Ralph DiBart, who is involved with the BID in New Rochelle, and Larisa Ortiz Pu-Folkes, who is senior director of Retail Attractions for NYC Department of Small Business Services. Ortiz is a nationally recognized expert on downtown revitalizations. With help from these consultants, BAK met with numerous business and property owners, residents, and other community stakeholders in a series of focus groups and found there was a consensus for establishing a BID in the Midtown and Rondout Broadway corridor, viewed by most people as key to the commercial health of the city.
How would the BID work? Property owners within the specially designated district would pay a fee based on their property assessment for enhanced services to improve the cleanliness and general appearance of the district’s streets. After gaining support for the BID from the Kingston business community and the public, BAK will submit the plan to the Common Council for review and ultimately, approval.
Property owners within the BID would pay a median fee of $1 a day for enhanced street cleaning, prompt removal of graffiti, and improved security. That money including a $1 a year fee from residential property owners in the district would fund the BID’s $100,000 annual budget, which would not only pay for a sanitation worker, but also director and part-time assistant; much like the Main Street Manager, the director would create a marketing campaign for the Broadway corridor as well as secure additional funding.
One of the businesspeople at the meeting was Dr. Thomas Cingel, D.D.S., who has an office on Broadway. Cingel said the BID could be the key in turning the corridor around. “It’s going to increase the aesthetic value of Broadway, so people coming into Kingston for the first time will have a different perception than what they’re getting now,” he said. “They’ll be more likely to drive into Kingston and do business. Business is happening in Kingston, but it’s perceived otherwise because of the empty storefronts and graffiti. Broadway is the city’s main thoroughfare, so we should be proud and take care of it.”
Another businessperson who attended the meeting was Bob Ryan, a fifth-generation Kingstonian who is president of Ryan & Ryan Insurance. Ryan supports the BID on the basis that it would give people the ability “to be a little more in control of their own destiny with the sanitation issues and cleanliness.” He said currently there are 25 empty storefronts between Burger King and the top of Broadway, proof that “what we’ve been doing isn’t working. I think the BID can help, in conjunction with fixing the nonhomestead/homestead tax structure,” in which commercial properties are taxed at a higher rate than residential properties.
“I care about Kingston and want it to thrive,” Ryan said. “Kingston has tremendous potential. We’ve just got to keep pushing until we get the right mix.”
There are thousands of BIDS throughout the U.S., which have resulted in dramatic turnarounds for places like Philadelphia’s Center City and New York’s Times Square, which changed from dirty, crime-ridden urban areas to vibrant tourist destinations after the BID was launched. BAK members have been researching and visiting other BIDS in the past year, including the BID in Middletown, New York City (which has 64), and Albany (which has three).
BAK member Bill Oderkirk, who owns a large commercial building in Uptown and was also at the meeting, said he’s seen first-hand the positive impact a BID has on an urban area. While he was living in downtown New York City, the 14th Street BID was formed, and Oderkirk said the sudden presence of uniformed sanitation workers on the street wielding brooms was a major factor in turning the seedy area into the safe, clean environment it is now.
At the meeting, BAK members noted the progress the organization has made since it was founded in 2007. The hiring of Nancy Donskoj as Main Street Manager in 2009, which was funded using state grant money as well as a Community Block Development Grant from the city, has resulted in some solid achievements. One is this blog and the MSM website, which gets the word out about the variety of great businesses in the city as well as the weekly calendar of events. In addition, colorful banners listing the city’s numerous attractions have been erected along the corridor, enabling visitors to wend their way from the Thruway exit through Uptown all the way down to the Rondout.
The tourism kiosk off the Thruway has been spruced up, and city zoning and façade guidelines have been distributed to incoming businesses. The MSM and BAK also sponsored a well-attended aldermen forum, helped promote two city-wide clean-ups and a yard sale as well as last year’s Time Fest, and hosted an ambitious design charrette attended by numerous architect-led teams for the abandoned Kings Inn.
“Each of these events took a lot of work, but each one brought a lot of attention to the city,” said BAK member Kevin Quilty. “I’m so pleased with what was accomplished in a short time.”
In the upcoming months, BAK and the MSM will be further improving the Broadway corridor, with a colorful mural planned for the Kings Inn façade. Donskoj is also exploring the possibility of commissioning artists to paint designs on the gray metal utility boxes lining the street. Efforts to improve storefront facades bore fruit recently, when the owner of Kennedy Fried Chicken erected an attractive new sign over the Broadway eatery.
Patrice Courtney Strong, president of BAK, noted that working with store owners to spruce up their facades is a process. “It takes time to form a relationship,” said Courtney Strong. She said that one idea being discussed is printing up an illustrated guide for façade improvement, which would be easier for Kingston’s many non-English speaking storekeepers to understand.
Donskoj noted that the time is ripe for positive change. Establishing the BID would give businesses on Broadway and the neighboring streets the boost they need to attract more shoppers. It would help turn Broadway into an appealing place, attracting new business owners. It would help enable Kingston to finally fulfill the potential everyone talks about.