By Kendra Sitton
Small business owners and their supporters gathered on a crowded street corner by the North Park sign waving green tulle and cell phone flashlights to commemorate the reopening of businesses in the region as COVID-19 restrictions ease amid falling case numbers.
“The fact that people took time out of their day and evening to come to that and then with all the lights and — it was very emotional to see the community come together for that cause, very emotional in the best way possible,” said Geraldine Ridaura Schumacher, owner of Holy Matcha, of the May 20 Lights on North Park Celebration.
The event was hosted by the North Park Business Improvement District (BID) headed by Angela Landsberg. Like small businesses themselves, many of the BIDs in San Diego have been struggling financially since the onset of the pandemic. Major fundraising events like Taste of North Park have been canceled, leading to layoffs. Landsberg said she currently does not have any employees.
The first BIDs began in the 1970s as a way for business owners to come together and improve their business districts by revitalizing older commercial areas, attracting new businesses, creating new jobs and supporting local businesses. According to the city, San Diego has the largest tenant-based program in the state. Currently, there are 18 City-designated BIDs representing 11,000 small businesses.
Eleven of those BIDs are inside City Council District 3. For this reason, the City Council member representing District 3 leads on policy matters regarding BIDs. At the May 18 City Council meeting, City Council President Pro Tem Stephen Whitburn introduced an amendment to the year-long BID contracts, making all of them have a six-month contract that will be renewed if new requirements are met, at the May 18 City Council meeting. It was unanimously adopted by other council members.
“My board and I were indeed surprised that our BID contract received only a six-month extension. We are now hopeful that complying with the additional accountability provisions will hasten the second six-month extension. We have always viewed our contract as a partnership between our nearly 500 Mission Hills business owners and the City of San Diego,” said Susan McNeil Schreyer of the Mission Hills BID.
The conditions for the contract renewal are an annual review of the bylaws, a new anti-harassment and inclusivity policy signed by all board directors and employees as well as annual inclusivity training for directors and employees.
While BID managers interviewed for this piece were universally supportive of adding workplace protections, some were surprised by the lack of communication with the city council leading up to the vote and confused by conflicting messages after the vote.
“The new provisions are simple and have been embraced by many of the BIDs. They’re required to have workplace anti-harassment [and] inclusivity policies and annual trainings for employees and board members. The policy also requires an annual review of the organization’s bylaws. That’s it,” Whitburn said.
The contract changing from one year to six months only came up in the final vote, not while it was in committee or in its first or second reading. The first time the BID managers knew about the changes was at the final vote.
“I just wish that being partners with the city we had gotten a heads up on this a month or two ago. It was no secret that this was coming to city council — it comes to city council every year,” Landsberg said. “My big problem with this is that, as a partnership, we would want to work on this together and this doesn’t feel like something we worked on together. It feels like we were blindsided and so now we’re scrambling.”
Initially, BID managers thought they would have six months to come up with the workplace policy and training for all the BIDs as well as to review the bylaws. In a phone call with all BID directors last week, there was stunning new information from the city’s Economic Development Department that is in charge the BIDs: the directors had until June 11 to review the bylaws and come up with the policy and training materials in order for the first six-month contract to be approved. That deadline was just a few days away with a long weekend in between. The department also did not specify what they wanted in the bylaws so BIDs have to submit changes hoping they meet unknown standards.
Landsberg said when the BIDs looked for contractors willing to do an independent review of the bylaws on such short notice and a fast deadline, cost estimates began at $20,000. In addition to the stress of the tight deadline and confusing messages, meeting it will be expensive too.
“The city, it kind of seems like they’re rushing around a little bit when they could have been more deliberate about it because it’s unclear. We’re getting mixed messages,” Benjamin Nicholls, manager of the Hillcrest BID, said.
In an email on June 2 from the Economic Development Department, the goalposts moved again as two additional requirements emerged that were not discussed in front of the council. BID managers were instructed to find a way for board members, business owners and the general public to provide input on the performance of the BIDs annually. The BIDs must create a conflict of interest code that requires board members and managers fill out a Form 700, also known as a Statement of Economic Dealing.
In an effort in 2019 to make members of neighborhood planning groups fill out the Form 700, many people pushed back against making volunteers fill out the arduous form, face potential fees if they fail to submit it on time and force non-government employees to have their financial records made public. The city may face the same arguments here.
Whitburn said he faced a couple questions on the policy but the BIDs responded well and are implementing them. He said BIDs will work with the Economic Development Department on any changes.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.