Things didn’t go as hoped this week for an effort among downtown property owners to spur economic development in the area.
The Downtown Bakersfield Property-based Business Improvement District Committee did not garner enough signatures of support from owners to make the 50 percent-plus-one threshold required by May 15 to move forward with an effort to add an assessment to the county’s property tax roll for next year.
Property owners within the district boundaries would have been assessed and taxed based on size and other factors.
Money raised from the assessments, estimated at $850,000 a year, would have gone toward cleaning and other beautification efforts, adding more security guards, bulking up marketing efforts and more in an effort to help revitalize downtown.
“I’m a little disappointed only because I want our businesses to do better,” said Bob Bell, a member of the committee and a downtown property owner. “I’m anxious to work side by side with my fellow business owners to make this happen. Forming a PBID is so valuable to the strength of downtown.”
The proposed district lines run from F Street east about one mile to Q Street, and from Truxtun Avenue as far north as 30th Street on the west side, and 24th Street on the east.
It would have encompassed and assessed every property within those boundaries, regardless of whether they’re retail, restaurant or governmental properties.
There are 441 owners in the district who hold more than 700 properties within the district boundaries. (Full disclosure: The Bakersfield Californian’s property on Eye Street is included in the district and is listed among the top 25 largest in the district.)
Bell said that rather than being an issue of a widespread lack of support from property owners, the real issue was that the committee just didn’t have enough time to reach out to all the owners and hear back from them all by the May deadline.
Organizers only a few months ago finished developing plans, filing legal documents, drawing up district boundaries and other preliminary steps, Bell said. The committee thought it might be able to get enough signatures from owners in time to make the deadline, but that didn’t pan out.
“We only had a few months after getting everything ready to actually go get the signature. That’s quite the tall task,” Bell said. “We thought it could happen, but now more than ever, our thought is to slow things down and take our time getting the signatures.”
Bell said material was mailed and emailed to all property owners in the proposed district. However, he said many owners have been slow to respond.
“When you get a piece of mail, you might read it, do some research. Some people don’t have a lot of time to respond quickly,” he said. “Everybody deserves the time to read the petition, communicate with us and learn more about it and understand the fullness of the PBID.”
The committee also held various meetings and tried to meet face-to-face with as many owners as possible, but that proved to be a challenge.
“A large percentage don’t live in Kern County anymore, so getting into contact with them is complicated,” he said.
In the end, Bell said they were only able to get responses back from about 40 percent of owners since March.
There is a group of about 25 property owners who are against the PBID effort, in part because they feel the money would go toward services already provided by the city.
“We don’t feel that it’s viable in its present form,” said Adam Cohen, who speaks for the group.
The committee isn’t giving up on the PBID effort. It plans to try again for the 2020 county tax roll.
If the committee is able to reach or surpass the required threshold, the proposal would then go to the City Council for certification. If approved, an election would be held among property owners.
Andrae Gonzales, councilman for the downtown area, said he's hopeful the effort will be successful.
"There are still good conversations happening about the direction of downtown," he said. "We're seeing a lot of movement right now in property owners investing in their own properties. I think it's all heading in the right direction."
Bell said he believes the PBID is crucial to the overall vitality of downtown Bakersfield because it can go further than the city can in investing in the area.
“We want Bakersfield to be one of the best cities in America, and it’s not going to be that way if we just rely on the government to grow,” Bell said. "I don’t think it’s just the city’s responsibility to make our downtown better. I think it’s something (property owners) need to take some self-responsibility for.”
Bell said he also believes there’s a lot of power in property owners working together not just to help their own businesses but each other as well.
“Instead of just going it alone, I would much rather pool my resources and my efforts with my property owner buddies and help them as I help myself,” he said. “The point is that property owners need to be collaborating and having consensus. It’s about the future of downtown, not just any one business.”