Does Duval Street/Downtown Need a Business Improvement District?

By Chris Hamilton, June 4, 2020

We’ve recently been making the case and seen lots of public support for putting in parklets to widen the sidewalks, for restaurants and retailers to “take the streets” or even for some semblance of the return of Mall-on-Duval-like activities. It seems a missing element is someone to organize and help the businesses along Duval Street and adjacent blocks to accomplish activities like this.

The City has embarked on a needed “Duval Street Revitalization Study” that will enlist an engineering and planning consultant to help plan the revitalization of the infrastructure or streetscape of Duval. The goal of the Project is to “renovate and revitalize Duval Street to increase opportunities for public use as an iconic civic space for leisure, commerce, and tourism; address the infrastructure which will allow for reasonable maintenance frequency and reduce costs to businesses and taxpayers; improve safety for pedestrians and vehicles; and maintain mobility for desired transit operations for all users.” The Mayor said she envisions improvements including widening sidewalks and adding planters, benches and water fountains. But once we renovate Duval Street, is that enough? Or do we need someone to help the businesses and community take advantage of and operate this improved asset?

(Photo credit for the dining photo: Michael Beattie of the Conch Scooter blog.) The businesses themselves are too busy just trying to run their own operations. These days that’s harder than ever to do. Mom and Pop shops shouldn’t also be expected to figure out how to make all this happen, coordinate with each other and actually do it. While the City should certainly set the table and provide services and capital improvements for one of its most important assets, Duval Street, and they do, should they be expected to do all the work or even more work, especially the activities part? Or should there be some sort of empowered third party organization that can take responsibility for helping small businesses thrive while liaising with and enhancing what the local government does do? There’s actually about 1,000 of these kind of organizations across the U.S.A. They’re called business improvement districts or BIDS. Would it be helpful to have one in downtown Key West? Let’s explore…

Downtown success is becoming widespread. At its heart is a quiet revolution concerning who takes responsibility for the “operations” of downtown commercial areas. Rather than blaming City Hall, hotel operators, theater owners, storekeepers, restaurateurs, service providers, office employers, developers, property owners, and property managers are planning and managing urban services in their neighborhoods.

Larry Houstoun of Larry Houstoun’s Urban Public Spaces & Business Improvement Districts blog

What’s a BID?

According to Wikipedia, BIDS are special commercial districts within a city overseen by a non-profit entity, typically funded by some sort of taxing authority with the money going towards improvements and services within the area. BIDs often rely on other sources of revenue, in addition to the tax assessment, to fund their operations. Services financed by a BID are intended to enhance existing city services, not replace them and/or provide services the city doesn’t do. The International Downtown Association (IDA) says: “A Business Improvement District (BID) is a public/private partnership in which property and business owners elect to make a collective contribution to the maintenance, development and promotion of a commercial district.” Since the 1970’s nearly 1,000 BIDS in big cities (New York City has 76) and small towns across North America have popped up. Wikipedia says “Often, BIDs are formed as a result of property owners in a defined district who seek funding for a variety of services, including governmental services such as cleaning and maintenance, non-governmental services such as marketing and promotion or beautification, and the implementation of capital investments.” As a DOT employee of Arlington County government, I worked closely with six Arlington, Virginia business improvement districts over the years – each one being indispensable to helping its neighborhood thrive.

I got to work with the DC Downtown BID on birthing and branding a brand new downtown circulator bus and with the Crystal City BID on starting bikeshare in Arlington. Both huge undertakings that needed a push, planning and even funding to get the two local governments moving. I witnessed local BIDS do small things like provide ambassadors on the street to welcome people and provide them with directions. They helped small shops with permits and applications. The local BIDS did extra sweepings of the streets and emptying of the trash cans. They sponsored branded benches, bus stops and recycle bins. They provided maps and wayfinding signage. ALL of the BIDS I worked with promoted walking, biking and transit because they knew that was better economically for their small business owners. They directed workers and visitors to long-term parking and shoppers to short-term parking. They fostered farmer’s markets, block parties, movie nights, lectures, gallery walks and first Friday events to promote businesses. And when when of the home teams went to the playoffs or when it was a holiday or special occasion they made sure the street light poles were festooned with flags sharing the moment as a neighborhood. They helped foster a stronger sense of place and belonging.

Typical BID Services

Every business improvement district is different and what they do and offer may change over time. But my experience and the literature on the subject suggests the following are typical business improvement district type services:

  • Supplement maintenance, sanitation and cleaning
  • Supplement security
  • Supplement or provide landscaping
  • Provide welcoming services including “Ambassadors” on the street
  • Conduct research and analyze economic, demographic and psychographic data
  • Provide alternative transportation and parking information and promotion so visitors don’t clog downtown looking for parking
  • Provide unified marketing services and promote businesses
  • Help brand or rebrand a district to impart a new, more positive or unified identity
  • Connect property owners with the right tenants
  • Promote and expand district business activity, thereby creating more jobs and furthering economic vitality or revitalization. A BID, in effect, acts as a localized chamber of commerce
  • Initiate event planning and production – think what Nadene Grossman Orr’s wonderful Key West Event’s does for Fantasy Fest and this is what BIDS do for their members
  • Advocate and promote civic art installations in public spaces or on publicly visible private properties in the district
  • Advocate and lobby on behalf of businesses to City Hall
  • Provide unified wayfinding signage
  • Report potholes, broken streetlights, malfunctioning traffic signals, illegal dumping and other urban shortcomings
  • Foster or generate starts for eventual City programs like circulator buses, carsharing and bikeshare programs
  • Initiate small capital improvements by funding or installing
    • trees and landscaping
    • bike racks
    • benches
    • street furniture
    • parklets
    • public amenities such as bathrooms

The Key West Historic Seaport Kinda Acts Like A BID

Key West already has one BID-like organization. Kinda. The Key West Historic Seaport. While they are a city-agency they have their own income and budget, overseen by their own board of directors. While they are City employees, they have staff that do similar work to other departments but just for the Seaport. As they have their own budget they have their own contractors and even have an almost $350,000 budget to market member businesses and put on events. Check out their web site. So while their marketing firm is asking people to shop and dine at the Seaport, who’s doing that for businesses on our Main street?

Do We Need a BID?

In our humble opinion, yes. Especially since the City sorta runs one already at the Historic Seaport. There isn’t a downtown commercial district in the North America worth its salt that doesn’t have one. Every BID I had the pleasure to work with made its neighborhood a better place and the businesses appreciated that. We’ve noticed many local business owners say they have problems getting permits for sidewalk seating and others don’t know where they’d even begin at the City if they wanted to put in a parklet in front of their business. Others have shared stories of receiving little support when they tried to participate in Mall on Duval. That and there seems to be a different City department for everything. Wouldn’t it be easier to have an advocate? Someone who could help organize things? Our downtown business district is our city’s life blood. If we’re going to invest in its infrastructure, shouldn’t we likewise invest in its smooth operations?

What About the Chamber and Other Organizations?

We have a lot of organizations in Key West that may seem kind of related. The Key West Chamber of Commerce, the Key West Business Guild, the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, the Key West Attractions Association, and of course there’s the Monroe County Tourist Development Council or TDC. They all do a fantastic job at what they do. I attend many of their functions. There’s indeed a little overlap, but do any of them specifically look out for and provide the kind of typical BID services we share above to Duval Street businesses? No. That’s not to say one of these organizations couldn’t do if tasked with running a BID. But none of them are providing those typical services to Duval Street at the moment. The creation of any Downtown BID would need to cede to these other organizations what they do best and concentrate on filling in the gaps.


Architecture professor and Washington Post columnist Roger K. Lewis in an article about How a BID Helps explains “BIDs are financed primarily through a dedicated, add-on BID tax, assessed over and above normal real estate taxes. Only businesses within the improvement district pay the extra tax. Typically the jurisdiction collects the additional BID tax, which is then available to the BID for its budgeted operating costs. However, BIDs are not official government agencies but, rather, function as independent, nonprofit organizations.” The Center for Innovative Finance Support adds “BIDs often rely on other sources of revenue, in addition to the tax assessment, to fund their operations.” I’ve also seen BIDS where the local government, in addition to the services it already provides in the BID Area, gives annual cash matches and allows the BIDS to access the City’s capital budget. There are likely as many ways to finance a BID as there are BIDS.

Crystal City Budget 2020 Budget

Typical BIDS can operate on budgets that are a couple to a few million dollars annually. In New York City the 75 bids average an annual budget of $2 million with a couple of them topping $5 million and a few that have budgets much less. The brand new Flagler District BID in Miami is targeting a $1 million first year budget. In Arlington, VA the Crystal City BID, mentioned above, has a $2.8 million annual budget and a tax rate of $0.043. The Ballston BID has a $1.6 annual budget and a $0.053 tax rate. The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization has a budget of about $550,000. So you can see there’s quite a range. If there is to be a BID in downtown Key West, its budget would be predicated upon what services were wanted and what money could be made available. It would seem that budgets on the smaller end, may not need much if any tax rate.

Perhaps in Key West there are opportunities for some innovative funding to keep any additional tax or fee burdens low on downtown commercial property owners. The County’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) takes in an awful lot of money annually. Perhaps some of that money could be put to use actually enhancing our downtown’s Main street’s operations rather than some of the money it spends on advertising Key West in general. Making the product they are advertising a stronger place might be a better way of attracting tourists, rather than clever marketing slogans. Just a thought.

What’s Next?

Typically BIDS begin when a group of local business people or a local business organization petitions a City to legally create one. Given that we quickly found 16 Florida BIDS, and there’s likely more, it would seem easy enough to start by asking one of them for assistance. This article is meant as a starting place for discussion. There really needs to be a groundswell from the business people on Duval and adjacent blocks to rally for something like this. It could also come from a champion at City Hall. Or ideally both.

Could the Duval Street Revitalization Study Look Into Creating a BID?

Perhaps the best avenue to approach this subject is via the Duval Street Revitalization Study process. The City has received proposals from two firms and a selection committee is expected to make a recommendation soon. Then the process will begin, perhaps this fall. While the Study is focusing on infrastructure, it seems appropriate that the selected consultant, in consultation with the business community and public, could come up with recommendations and action items relating to a Duval Street or Downtown BID overseeing this enhanced asset too.

Final Takeaway

Now’s the time to learn more, think it through and hopefully have a good discussion about creating a BID during the Duval Street Revitalization Process. Let’s help make that discussion happen.

Chris Hamilton, June 4, 2020

Feature Image (top of page) photo credit Keys Weekly.

Florida Business Improvement Districts

Here are some nearby Florida BIDS: South Miami BID, Winwood BID, (Miami), The Beach BID (Fort Lauderdale), Flagler District BID (Miami), City of Palm Bay BID, Coconut Grove BID (Miami), Lincoln Road BID, Fifth Avenue South BID (Naples), St. Armonds Special Business Neighborhood Improvement District (Sarasota), International Drive BID/TMA (Orlando), Downtown South BID (Orlando), Downtown Orlando Central District BID, Downtown Jacksonville, Downtown Coral Gables BID, Tampa Downtown Partnership, Westshore District Tampa Bay.

Sources for This Article and Additional Information

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

1 Comments on “Does Duval Street/Downtown Need a Business Improvement District?”

  1. Kudos tough for a suberb write up on proposals to make our famous Duval St. Better for all. Locals and tourists would all benefit from businesses being able to offer the concept to relax , savor and dine in our old Conch style of enjoying Key West.

    I hope that these projects are a future for our town.

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