The revitalization of downtown Lexington has made a lot of progress in recent years, but there has been a missing link: a well-funded private partnership to take up where city services leave off.
The Downtown Lexington Corp. hopes to fix that. The organization last week started a petition drive among property owners to ask the Urban County Council to create a downtown management district.
Such districts, which have been effective in many other cities, work like a suburban homeowner's association. Property owners pay an annual assessment that goes to provide amenities and services above and beyond what city government provides.
Lexington's proposed downtown management district would include 373 properties with 223 owners and a total taxable value of almost $280 million. The proposed assessment would be $1 for each $1,000 of assessed tax value; so the owner of a $3 million office building would pay $3,000 a year, while the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $300.
How that money was spent would be determined by a board of downtown property owners and tenants. Proposed uses include streetscape improvements, better "wayfinding" signage, more marketing and the hiring of "ambassadors" to walk the streets to help visitors and improve safety and security.
State law requires the petition to get support from at least 33 percent of property owners whose holdings total at least 51 percent of property values. But DLC President Renee Jackson said she won't take the petition to council unless it has support from at least half of the affected property owners.
Even if approved, the management district would have to be reauthorized after five years, and a majority of property owners could vote to disband it at any time.
Since New Orleans created the first management district in 1974, more than 1,200 have sprung up across the country. From a regional perspective, Lexington is late to the party. Louisville's downtown management district was organized in 1991, Knoxville's in 1993, Nashville's in 1994 and Cincinnati's in 1997.
Louisville's district, the only one in Kentucky, has worked well.
"The focus on clean and safe in the downtown district has allowed the center city to be managed in a way that is similar to the suburban shopping center," said Bill Weyland, a major downtown Louisville developer whose projects have included the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Glassworks building.
"It is important for downtowns, which have numerous property owners, to have management districts so that there can be uniform center city services that rival the single-owner competitors in the suburbs," Weyland added.
I saw the potential of a management district firsthand when I worked in downtown Atlanta between 1988 and 1998. The Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, created in 1995, made a big difference.
No American city has made more extensive use of management districts than New York, which now has 67 of what it calls business-improvement districts that pump $100 million a year into amenities and services. As a frequent visitor to New York over the years, the impact they have had is stunning.
When I was there in April, the pocket parks along Broadway in Midtown Manhattan were clean and beautiful. Tulips, jonquils and hyacinths were everywhere, as were the people enjoying those public spaces. Many of Gotham's once-mean streets are now family-friendly.
One dramatic transformation is Bryant Park, on 42nd Street behind the New York Public Library. Once a hangout for drug dealers, the park is now a beautiful and popular oasis that has attracted a lot of new private commercial development. The park is managed by Bryant Park Corp., which is funded and overseen by area property owners.
A Lexington downtown management district is a low-risk proposal with the potential to do a lot of good. But it is no silver bullet.
For one thing, the proposed assessment would raise less than $300,000 a year, which really isn't much money. The district's board would have to pay close attention to priorities, management and follow-up, while taking care not to duplicate existing efforts by others.
Downtown property owners should get behind this plan, but with the knowledge that leadership and execution will make or break it. Sadly, that is where so many of Lexington's civic improvement projects sputter and die.
IF YOU GO
Downtown Lexington Management District public meetings
What: Public information meetings to discuss a proposed taxing district downtown
When: 9 a.m. Sept. 9; 4 p.m. Sept. 12; noon Sept. 13; and 4 p.m. Sept. 16
Where: Central Bank seventh-floor training center, 300 W. Vine St.
Learn more: Dlmdonline.comproposed TIME LINE for the district
September/October: Sample pedestrian wayfinding boxes are installed.
October: Presentation to Urban County Council, first council reading.
Late October/early November: Second council reading and council vote.
Jan. 1: District takes effect.
Jan.-July: Organization of district, board appointed.
Fall 2014: District could begin implementing limited services, would receive first revenues.