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Downtown efforts need funding help

February 02, 2008|By ED WENGER

As chairman of the board of Downtown Chambersburg Inc. (DCI), I believe downtown property owners and retailers must be aware of the mission, accomplishments and future goals of DCI. This includes being the proponent for the Neighborhood Improvement District (NID), which was presented at a public meeting Jan. 9.

The mission of DCI is economic revitalization and growth of the downtown area. This includes retaining existing and attracting new businesses. DCI is responsible for running the Main Street Program, which has attained "Achiever" designation -- allowing for significant state level monetary benefits to downtown.

The Main Street Program has four pillars - economic growth, image and design, organization and promotion. The Downtown Business Council (DBC) provides the promotion, with DCI managing the other three areas. Our program has been honored as the best Main Street Program in Pennsylvania in the past 25 years. Significant accomplishments include the Capitol Theatre complex, Heritage Center, Village on the Falling Spring (Chambers Fort Park), helping to facilitate improvements and investments on the North Square projects, providing additional security and trash pickup, providing downtown financial incentives (tool kit) to merchants and property owners, implementing LERTA, which provides investment tax abatement incentive, along with other benefits.

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If not for these past and continuing efforts, Chambersburg would not be the downtown we see today.

The request to the Borough of Chambersburg to implement a Neighborhood Improvement District is not a contest or competition between DCI and DBC. The DBC, as it determines, can remain an independent member-based organization. Each has missions complimentary for downtown sustainability and revitalization, which means growth for business and enhanced values for both retailers and landowners. Both DCI and DBC support downtown revitalization and I see both organizations continuing to co-exist for the benefit of downtown.

Since 1994, DCI has been supported by contributions from the Chamber of Commerce, CDC, CADC, banks, fund-raisers (Crabfest and IceFest, for example) and requests to downtown merchants and property owners for "voluntary" financial support. Public grants have helped, but those sources are now dry. Voluntary contributions are not sufficient to allow DCI to continue to provide all services currently provided and to provide more services. This past year we received about $7,500 from about 20 percent of businesses and property owners. This is down from about $14,000 received when the appeal started. "Ask and you shall receive" does not work.

A downtown NID is a way to provide funding for services beyond those provided by governmental bodies. The NID process, defined by statute, requires a 40 percent against vote to defeat a NID, which still must then be adopted by the Borough.

The parameters of the proposed NID have not been defined yet. These will be determined as part of the planning process, which include a parcel specific area, method of assessment (could be by street frontage, assessed value, land-only assessment, square footage or other formula), new services to be provided (such as sidewalk cleaning, snow removal, marketing, business recruitment etc.) and who will be assessed, and by how much. Both property owners and business owners participate in the formulation process, which takes close to a year to complete.

The NID funds will be part of the overall budgeted income of DCI. The amount requested will be determined by the services provided. This could be from $60,000 to $80,000 +/- with the remaining money coming from current underwriting sponsors and projects. If we use the Main Street area as the NID boundary, there are 231 real estate parcels from which to draw the above assessment.

DCI President Paul Cullinane's work has value, whether he is courting a business for downtown, referring a possible tenant to a property owner, working on financing packages for business to start or grow, grant writing, overseeing maintenance and security, or marketing the downtown.

DCI conducts the "Faade Improvement Program" now preparing for Phase IV, and will have secured $130,000 that has been given to property on a matching basis for downtown facades. Grant money for projects/development such as this does not just happen without significant effort.

In other communities that have NIDs, property values have increased.

Property owners are the only ones who vote on the NID, after the details are known. West Chester's experience was that tenants saw a $5 to $10 increase per month. Is that so bad for new services to be provided? What would the cost be if located in a mall or shopping center for common area expenses? No doubt, much more than $10 a month.

The assessment assures a fair method to require all who receive the services to support the service. Statewide, the average assessment per property is $250 to $600 per year, depending on the plan budget. Only those within the NID receive the services.

The NID, if approved, must exist for five years. If it moves downtown Chambersburg ahead, then keep it going. Nationwide, the NID re-approval rate is 98 percent!

We need an equitable base of sustainable funds to continue to move forward. The NID will allow this to occur. I ask property owners to make an informed decision for the future of downtown. For more information or to offer comments, contact DCI at 264-7101.

Ed Wenger is chairman of the board of Downtown Chambersburg Inc.

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