Business Improvement Districts
A look at the work in La Jolla, the College area, Mission Hills and the Gaslamp Quarter
By Christy Scannell
Last in a series
Last month we looked at four of San Diego’s 20 business improvement districts (BIDs) —East Village, El Cajon Boulevard, North Park and Ocean Beach. This month we visit four more BIDs — La Jolla, College, Mission Hills and Gaslamp Quarter — to explore their achievements, challenges and goals.
Mike McLaughlin of TMC Communications in San Diego has been working with BIDs for 20 years. He says there is one common point of misunderstanding many business owners have with BIDs: their function.
“A BID is nothing more than an assessment district,” he said. “The BID simply collects money and it sits in a pot. But to access that money, the city contracts with organizations in the community. Those are what decide how the money gets spent and what gets accomplished. This is all done through independent corporations.”
McLaughlin was retained in October to assist La Jolla businesses in forming a new nonprofit organization to access that community’s BID funds. Promote La Jolla had operated the BID from when it was chartered in the early 1990s until two years ago when it lost its contract with the city.
“The city was concerned about possible irregularities with the spending of the BID money,” McLaughlin said about the split. “So the city’s Office of Small Business began overseeing the BID allocations for La Jolla. But the city is not really set up to do it and the City Council doesn’t want the city to do it and the folks in La Jolla don’t want to see them do it. So it’s time to move forward.”
The city retained McLaughlin to work with La Jolla businesses in forming the new entity. Once he identified that business owners did indeed want to organize again, he surveyed them about how they would like to see their BID assessments used.
“The No. 1 concept was beautification — hanging baskets, sidewalks, trash cans,” he said. “The entire village of La Jolla takes pride in what goes on there and that’s certainly true of the merchants in the village.”
Now McLaughlin is helping the group decide on a name for their new organization, create by-laws, write a mission statement and concept a budget. Specific projects won’t be decided until a board is elected in late January.
“We have only been talking in the broadest of terms. This is a very fluid, open process,” McLaughlin said.
Of the district’s 1100 business members, about 25 to 30 are actively working on the new organization, he said. However, forums and coffees have been open to all who are interested, and McLaughlin has visited many businesses to chat one-on-one with owners about their concerns and ideas.
“Then I’ve been getting out of the way and letting business owners there make new relationships and set the tone of where they want to go,” he said. “At the end of the day my livelihood is not tied to the La Jolla business community. It’s the business owners that clean windows and open doors and say, ‘Come in.’ So those ought to be their decisions, not mine and certainly not the city’s.”
Some of Promote La Jolla’s successful events have been transferred to other management, such as the Motor Car Classic in April, which the La Jolla Historical Society now operates. But McLaughlin said he anticipates the continuation of events such as the La Jolla Gallery and Wine Walk plus the creation of fresh approaches to attracting visitors to La Jolla’s village core.
“I can tell you just from hearing the merchants talk that they are very proud of the events they’ve created,” he said. “Organizationally they have a number of things they have to do to get up and running. But once they do, I think people are going to see a vibrant business community flourish in La Jolla.”
The school that gives the College Area BID its name is both a help and a hindrance, said Jennifer Finnegan, the organization’s executive director. “People tend to correlate SDSU with us but we’re more than that,” she said about the 500-member district. “It’s always been a point of contention between the permanent residents here and the temporary residents and the businesses that are trying to survive off them.”
The College Area BID covers El Cajon Boulevard from 54th to 73rd streets, College Avenue from Acorn Street north to the San Diego State campus, and Montezuma Road from 55th Street to El Cajon Boulevard. Since the university is central to the district’s geography, efforts that include the school community tend to be the district’s most successful, Finnegan said. “Our major annual event is the Boulevard Boo! Parade and Carnival (in October), which started with a partnership with the College Neighborhoods Foundation and is now solely produced by the BID,” she said. “It’s based off the old SDSU homecoming parade timeline and SDSU still has a major presence in it.”
Another plus of having a university nearby is the availability of volunteer student resources, said Finnegan. “We try to get the students involved with their community so they can find out what’s here. It can be difficult to market to SDSU because unless you have a partnership where you’re working with them it’s not real easy to get their attention,” she said. “So we do projects with classes. They design banners, help us plan the parade, help us plan the Taste.”
The district’s next big push, Finnegan said, will be filling vacant storefronts by working with the city’s code enforcement department to track zoning for various buildings. “Mike Habib, who is an agent with Coldwell Banker, is putting together a gap analysis for the district that treats the district like one big shopping center,” she said. “We want to find out from people who live in a one-mile radius what they are spending in our center and outside our district. It gives us an idea of what flourishes here and if they would shop at places closer to home rather than go outside our area.”
Meanwhile, Finnegan and the district’s board have added a business vacancy page to the organization’s Website. “When businesses come to us and say we’d like to be in your area, now we can point them in the direction to go,” she said.
Finnegan said business owners are attracted to the College area’s close-knit feel even though it is the sprawling eastern anchor of the city. “This neighborhood has been growing very steadily despite the economic downturn,” she said. “People in the College area really care about their neighborhood. There is a community feeling down here that I think people miss (in other places).”
The Mission Hills BID is one of the smaller districts in the city system with 380 member businesses, but it covers a large area that converges at Washington Avenue and Goldfinch Street, including businesses on Reynard Way, Ft. Stockton Drive and India Street plus several blocks surrounding each of those streets. That expansive aspect has been a challenge, said Richard Stegner, executive director. “Trying to bring those different areas together is difficult,” he said. “But our job is to pull them all together to be a single voice and then act on their behalf.”
The Mission Hills BID was established in 1989 but reorganized with a new board in 2004. Much of the district’s recent success has been in the center of Mission Hills – San Diego’s oldest neighborhood – spurred by 1Mission, a mixed-use development that opened earlier this year on Ft. Stockton Drive a block off of Washington Avenue.
“It’s a huge impetus for other things to be happening,” Stegner said. “It helped all the Washington Street businesses. More restaurants moved in. Uptown Partnership improved the Goldfinch intersection. We started beautifying that whole four-block area with new trash cans, new benches, new plantings. You can really see the difference.”
Stegner said he hopes that will create a momentum for other parts of the district. “That was the kick start. Now it’s a block at a time — we got the core done so let’s go to the next block and see what we can do,” he said. “That way when you walk down the street you feel like you’re in a pleasant environment — people can sit down, there is a wastebasket handy, there are flowers to see.”
A popular district event is Mission Nights, which launched in 2007. The third Wednesday of every month from 6-8 p.m., it encourages local residents to stroll from business to business for samples, live music, sale pricing and other specials. “We want people who live around there to get out of the house and see what’s in their area,” Stegner said. “Some businesses say they get new clients because of it who are people who live two blocks away and didn’t know they were there (until attending Mission Nights).”
Mission Hills’ newest draw is the Friday farmers’ market. Although many of the city’s BIDs sponsor weekly markets, Mission Hills just began its street market this year on Falcon Street between Washington Avenue and Ft. Stockton Drive. Its success has been due to its size, Stegner said — which is surprisingly small. “Some markets say they’re big but they have four or five of everything. Instead of that we have one of each,” he said. “That way that farmer is very happy because he doesn’t have competition from others who grow the same thing he does.”
The “small is better” theory has worked well in Mission Hills for years, he said. “We have pretty much everything you need — restaurants, grocery stores, cheese shop, salons, pet store, library, tax service, flower shop. You name it, all your needs are taken care of,” he said. “You don’t have to drive across town to get what you need when you live in Mission Hills.”
While the Gaslamp BID has chartered boundaries, Executive Director Jimmy Parker said he is reticent to tell someone what they are. “Gaslamp to us has always been a state of mind,” he said. “When people say they’re heading Downtown, this is where they’re heading. We aren’t going to draw those lines for them.”
The district’s 400 members are indeed familiar to most San Diegans — as well as visitors. From Downtown hotels to Horton Plaza to the convention center, the Gaslamp District boasts some of the city’s most recognizable businesses. But that doesn’t mean it is without its problems.
“Being in the middle of Downtown we are under a higher scrutiny because everybody can see us and with that comes more responsibility,” Parker said. “Our streets are major arteries. Yet we don’t have alleyways like Pacific Beach or North Park, so all deliveries come through the front door, which creates a challenge when you have cars, buses, taxis and pedestrians all trying to share that roadway.”
Plus they are doing it in volume. The Gaslamp Quarter is home to some of the city’s major events, such as the largest Mardi Gras on the West Coast, and national events such as the NFL Super Bowl, which brought 110,000 to the district in 1998 for SuperFest.
“We coordinate with the police department, fire department and trolley to work to maintain traffic flow. It’s a challenge but again it’s one of our greater successes,” Parker said. “This isn’t Disneyland; this is a true urban center. But it is amazingly safe for the people that come through this area.” The constant flow of people actually promotes safety, he said, adding that residents of East Village and the Marina feel more confident parking in the Gaslamp Quarter than in their own neighborhoods. “There is crime in Downtown but the funny thing is there is not that much in the Gaslamp. That has to do with eyes on the street,” said Parker.
Even with the Gaslamp’s steady throngs, the district’s board was curious to know people’s perceptions about the Quarter so they commissioned a study. The results showed a few surprises, Parker said. “Parking was not the greatest distraction, which was interesting,” he said. “What we found was lack of awareness of the number and types of stores that we have for retail.”
Parker said he is working with Gaslamp businesses to come up with a marketing plan — including a mobile phone application — that better explains what is available in the district and how to get there. “We have a variety that is for everybody, not just the visitor,” he said. “We have more retail than restaurants. So we really want to make sure that that’s understood better.”
The Gaslamp BID was founded in 1982. Parker joined the board in 1998 and became executive director in 2004. What he loves about working there, he said, is the area’s uniqueness — and its gritty history.
“The Gaslamp Quarter brand is not like anything else in the world. Go online and there is only one — like the French Quarter,” he said. “I love the district. I grew up with it. The most fun for me having grown up (in San Diego) is I’m working in a district where my parents wouldn’t let me go (as a child). And now they ride their bikes down here and tell me about the new shops. That’s the renaissance.”