Bidding on betterment

Downtown advocates take initiative—and vote—to clean up city center

Tom DiGiovanni outside his office on Flume Street.

Tom DiGiovanni outside his office on Flume Street.

Photo by Ken Smith

Heads up:
The Chico City Council meeting that includes the PBID is 6 p.m. Wednesday (July 5), not Tuesday, because of Independence Day.

As a Boston native who’s called Chico home for the past 29 years, Tom DiGiovanni has an abiding connection to—and concern for—the heart of the city.

“Downtown is in my DNA,” DiGiovanni said Monday (June 26) at the office of New Urban Builders, the development company he runs. “I’ve always gravitated toward the vibe and offerings of downtown areas, and the civic and social engagement they provide.”

But DiGiovanni’s love of Chico’s city center isn’t blind. He’s seen the area’s fortunes rise and fall over the years, with the last decade marked mostly by decline.

He and a group of business advocates have proposed a plan to address cleanliness, safety and economic development in downtown Chico through the formation of a property-based improvement district (PBID). In mid-May, property owners within the proposed PBID area received ballots, which must be turned in by Wednesday (July 5). The ballots will be counted at the Chico City Council meeting that night.

Though the effort has already received a nod from the city, the vote is far from a slam dunk, as some property owners have expressed concerns over who will make up the PBID’s governing board and other details.

A PBID is an area in which property owners pay a self-imposed assessment, with the funds dedicated to the management and improvement of the area. In Chico’s case, it includes 323 commercial and residential properties in two zones encompassing roughly 45 blocks. Those properties are owned by about 180 people and entities, each with a weighted vote determined by how much they will pay in annual assessments if the PBID is approved.

Assessments are calculated according to location and square footage of properties and buildings. DiGiovanni said that, minus the single largest and smallest contributors, assessments average $2,242 a year. The total amount raised each year is projected to be around $450,000.

DiGiovanni said the bulk of PBID payments will go toward making downtown “clean and safe,” primarily via an ambassador program and clean-up brigade. Ambassadors would serve as guides and “eyes on the street” to help visitors and report crimes to Chico police; the PBID will fund between 200 and 240 man hours to pay them and other staff focused on clean-up, including pressure washing storefronts and sidewalks.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because for the past two years the DCBA has been running a Clean and Safe program, which was itself based on an earlier initiative called R-Town.

R-Town was formed during the 2014 holiday season, when some downtown business owners raised about $65,000 to help fund volunteer ambassador and clean-up programs, as well as hire armed security guards to patrol downtown. The DCBA has raised money since to keep a slimmed-down effort going, with security on-call to its members.

“The Clean and Safe effort was admirable but insufficient for the task,” DiGiovanni said. “The DCBA was out there hat-in-hand trying to raise funds for it every year, but I don’t believe it ever amounted to more than $50,000 a year. That money was from the same few folks pitching in every year.

“The [PBID] mechanism ensures those responsibilities are more rationally distributed and equitably worn.”

DiGiovanni said that it’s “highly unlikely” that PBID money will be used for security: “Our steering group has analyzed the best practices employed by other PBIDs across the country, and in those, armed security is not part of the picture.”

An anonymous letter criticizing the PBID plan was mailed to potential members in late May, and DiGiovanni mailed a response countering the letter’s claims June 5. Other critics have been more open with their opposition.

“I believe that the property owners that have put together the PBID have great intentions,” said Teri DuBose of Broadway Pawn. “We all want to clean up our downtown and reduce crime so that the citizens will come enjoy it and feel safe. We just have different thoughts on how to obtain that.

“I voted no on the PBID,” she continued. “We already pay taxes for the services that the PBID is offering.… Perhaps there could be more discussion about the details of the PBID, but at this time there are too many questions.”

Dubose’s questions include what staff will be hired and how security will function.

DiGiovanni said some of the finer details still need to be worked out, which will be done with the input of members and experts who’ve been involved in similar projects in other cities. There are more than 100 PBIDs operating in California, and more nationwide.

One such expert is Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership—the country’s first PBID, founded in 1995. That effort started with a clean-and-safe focus similar to the current local attempt; it has grown into a $6 million-a-year organization with 70 employees and wide-ranging business services.

Ault noted PBIDs—Chico’s included—must be reviewed and re-voted upon five years after they’re formed; they can be extended by five- or 10-year increments. He said the Sacramento PBID started with a 65 percent majority, and 90 percent voted in favor of a 10-year extension in 2016. Ault visited Chico earlier this month and said he believes the local downtown would benefit greatly from a PBID plan.

“This could give property owners and business people in Chico a real, direct opportunity to control their own destiny,” he said. “It’s very uncommon for PBIDs to not have a significant, positive impact.”