How will the Waukesha BID's absence be felt?

Many say downtown will see negative impact without it

Feb. 12, 2013

The downtown Waukesha Business Improvement District has existed for 26 years.

It's purpose is to recruit and retain downtown businesses, make downtown an attractive place through organizing events and maintenance, and to market the area.

But more than a quarter-century after being implemented, the BID appears to be finished.

That bothers at least one person.

"Razing the BID is going backward," said Karen White, a former BID Board member, who has owned the Little Swiss Clock Shop in downtown Waukesha for almost 50 years. "Not having it will be noticeable for sure. I feel we're going back to square one."

But because a majority of the downtown property owners who fund it through a special tax assessment have decided to pull the plug, its days are numbered, despite the Common Council approving new bylaws and an operating plan at its last meeting.

"Many people felt they had no choice," said Jeff Barta, owner of Nice Ash Cigar Bar in downtown Waukesha and a former BID Board member. "They are very dissatisfied with how the new bylaws were implemented, without a lack of input from the property owners. The BID has become a grant holder organization where it is distributing money for other organizations. The sentiment is that it is becoming a huge money grab."

Property owners have say

Barta, along with many other property owners have signed a petition to disband the BID, a taxing district in downtown. Barta said there were several property owners who collected signatures and others made phone calls or talked to neighbors.

With 63 percent of the property owners on the list (more than 50 percent is needed), it was delivered to Mayor Jeff Scrima last week. According to state statute, a public hearing with the Plan Commission on the proposed termination will be held within 30 days of the petition filing. After that, every property owner in the BID district, may send written notice to the Plan Commission indicating if it retracts the request to terminate the BID. If more than 50 percent is still on the petition the BID would be dissolved.

Board just got started

Since restarting the BID Board in January, after the resignations of Meghan Sprager and other board members last summer, three meetings with the new BID Board took place.

The board elected officials after City Administrator Ed Henschel created a template on a new operating plan that eliminated the executive director's position and turned the BID into more of a granting organization where it would use about half of the tax money ($71,110) it receives from property owners to give grants to other agencies that would invest in the downtown through events. Last year $17,845 was designated for the Grants and Financial Support category.

Current board member and property owner Jim Taylor, of Taylor's People's Park restaurant, added the money would have also been used for a facade grant and other downtown improvements under the streetscape, banners and decorations section. Taylor, who fully supported the new plan, said the board consulted with other BIDs on the new model as there was an agreement the old model wasn't working.

The BID's draft said the 2013 tax assessment would be $147,510, but BID president Bill Huelsman said the board voted to reduce the assessment by $8,000 and added the property owners felt there should be a tax holiday for 2013 from the BID reserves it saved while the BID was inactive last fall.

"I think we could have moved forward with the operating plan, but there's overwhelming objection," said Huelsman, a property owner who did not sign the petition. "I'm not encouraged something could be worked out because the objection seems insurmountable."

Owner not happy

That upsets White because she credits much of downtown's recent growth to the formation of the BID in 1986.

"I was in business before the BID and was here when we got the BID," White said. "I've seen the good, the bad and everything in between and there's no doubt about it, the BID has been a big help in upgrading the downtown."

White said the BID helped in keeping the streets clean as she indicated it was responsible for planting flower barrels, street sweeping around downtown and helped with renovating buildings. White added that marketing the downtown would be lost as well.

"Those are all important things I do not want to go away," White said. "I'm sad to see an organization that worked so well be destroyed."

BID's absence will be felt

Despite signing the petition, Barta also said it's a shame the BID might no longer be in place. He indicated the BID swept the streets four or five times per week and said the BID's staff coordinated many volunteers.

"It provided stability,continuity and especially accountability," Barta said. "While the Farmer's Market (after Sprager resigned) continued it was for a short term only. To expect volunteers to consistently have the ability to run these events year after year will be difficult at best.

"Having an executive director contributed greatly to recruitment of new businesses as well as retention of existing businesses. Downtown was kept clean and beautified by the BID. The BID also provided the cigarette dispensers, Christmas decorations, rooftop lighting, signage and a place for getting information."

And while people downtown have a vested interest in this, Barta said others throughout the city should take notice.

"People outside of downtown should care," Barta said. "The city will have to devote more resources downtown with no BID in place and that will cost more money."

Differing views

Taylor, meanwhile, said it's ironic the same people who accused him of trying to eliminate the BID last fall when he put a sign in his building noting a majority of the BID tax was going toward administrative costs have now gotten signatures to disband the BID.

"The most important thing to me is that everything we do positively to bring people into downtown Waukesha, the (people looking to disband the BID) take the opposite stance," Taylor said. "They'll publicly humiliate us like they did three months ago.

"Now, they're the ones that got the petition trying to disband it."

Attorney Shawn Reilly, who has practiced law in downtown Waukesha for 23 years, said it's clear why he signed the petition.

"I think the operating plan in the budget was unresponsive to what the property owners wanted," said Reilly, a past president of the BID. "Changing the BID to a granter organization where it gives tax money to other entities for running events isn't a good use of the BID funds.

"I'm concerned about maintaining the infrastructure and having an orderly and clean downtown."

Others have to step up

Barta agreed and said it was not his intention to disband the BID when the new board was formed. But when he and other property owners saw the bylaws, he said they had to act.

"The elimination may present opportunities to refocus and improve things downtown as more individuals will need to step forward to fill some of the gaps," Barta said. "It is impossible to predict if that will happen. It is certain that it will make things more difficult."

Martha Merrell's Books owner Norm Bruce, a former president of the BID who pays the BID tax, took a wait-and-see approach. He anticipates other organizations stepping up like he did when he finished the 2012 Farmer's Market season.

Besides the Farmer's Market the BID also puts on the Christmas Parade.

"It could come down to what things do you want to see continue and what do you not want continued and how big of an impact does it have on downtown," said Bruce, who along with White and Taylor weren't approached about the petition.

Huelsman said the Carl Zach Cycling Classic that runs through downtown - an event the BID is responsible for - will still take place June 23 as the contract has already been signed.

White just doesn't want what the BID did for more than 25 years to go away.

"I would hope if the BID is dissolved that other people would step up and fill the void," she said. "But business people have businesses to run, so it's very hard to do all of it.

"The BID helped us so much and I don't want to lose the momentum that we have enjoyed down here."


Local Crime Map



Latest Photo Galleries