"A band-aid is better than nothing" Can a big donor non-profit organization rescue downtown?
As the Daily Progress recently reported, the Downtown Business Association has been "absorbed and replaced" by a new donor-funded non-profit called the Friends of Cville, which just kicked off their formation by partially wrapping the rat-infested shell of an unfinished hotel project that has been a blight on the Downtown Mall for nearly 14 years with a music-themed vinyl mural, an idea the Bridge Progressive Art Initiative's Matthew Slaats actually proposed in 2014, which would have given local artists the opportunity to participate in a creative/public project. Friends of Cville chose to use the work of a Canadian "pop fusion" artist named Eric Waugh, who, according to his website, has created 45,000 original works of art around the world. Coincidentally, that's how much the Friends paid for the mural - $45,000.
Over the years, the City had tried to designate the Downtown Mall as a Business Improvement District (BID), much like the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont, where property owners in the district pay additional taxes to fund improvements. As a result, the organizing body of the district gets to have real power to implement policy and manage and promote the district. In fact, in 2003 a delegation of 19 Charlottesville city leaders and downtown stakeholders took a pilgrimage to Burlington to learn how to create a BID. However, attempts to establish one never worked out, due in part to some controversy about how large the district would be and who would pay, and who would benefit.
So, is this new group that has replaced the Downtown Business Association essentially a BID?
"I suppose it could evolve into one, yes," says former Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, who recalls the attempts to create a BID for downtown. " A BID is usually funded via self-taxation of all property owners as opposed to philanthropic giving by a few wealthy stakeholders. In that sense, this new group reminds me more of the old Charlottesville Downtown Foundation than a BID."
The Charlottesville Downtown Foundation, like Friends of Cville, was a donor-funded nonprofit that was active in the 1990s, and which most notably pushed for the construction of the Meadowcreek Parkway because of "its importance to the vitality of downtown." But the non-profit quietly disappeared. Later, the Downtown Business Association (DBAC) was formed, funded by small membership fees from downtown business owners, and famously advocated for vehicle crossings on the pedestrian mall and charging people for on-street parking.
"[The Downtown Business Association] never was able to assemble enough revenue to do the kind of projects they wanted done," Michael Caplin, Friends of Cville co-chair, and former DBAC member told The Daily Progress. Caplin said the DBAC, as an organization, didn't have the tax status to raise money, and so the two organizations decided to merge to form one that could. While Caplin didn't say where the donations would be coming from, he did describe some ambitious plans, like creating more murals and public art projects on the Mall, installing public restrooms, adding more lighting, renovating Market Street Park, and establishing something called a Community Care Team to address homelessness on the mall, which he described as an "intense, proactive outreach to people (teaming up with social services) on a daily basis to build relationships and assist with “a more promising outcome.” While Caplin said they have a budget and a plan for the program, he admitted they don't yet have the money.
Burlington's Church Street has what they call a “Street Outreach Team” made up of social workers who act as liaisons between businesses on the street and the Burlington Police Department, helping to defuse situations before the police have to get involved. They offer “support to individuals with psychiatric disabilities, substance abuse problems, homelessness issues, and unmet social service needs,” according to program literature. During the pandemic, the Street Outreach Team proved to be an essential resource for downtown Burlington. Of course, since Burlington's downtown is a BID, this is a tax-funded City program.
Ironically, some of the funding for the new Friends of Cville group, a donation of $10,000, comes from the developer John Dewberry, the owner of the DTM's worse eyesore, who many would not consider a "Friend" of downtown Charlottesville.
Can the new Friends of Cville organization prod Dewberry to finally finish the project or pass it on to someone else? Will we be seeing downtown improvements and a Community Care Team operating on the downtown mall anytime soon?
“Sometimes you need a band-aid. A band-aid is better than nothing," Mayor Llyod Snook told the DP, talking about the new mural, and clearly trying to lower expectations. "This is not going to be the answer, but it’s an expression of things, and that’s very important."