The Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District (CBID) board of directors voted Tuesday (Aug. 20) to proceed with plans for property assessment within the district.
“Our downtown is the face of our city. They come over the bridge into Fort Smith to our downtown. Their impression of our city starts with the downtown,” said Phil White, CBID board member. “We’ve talked about projects, ideas, concepts. We gain, … but the main thing is we have so much left to do. … We can’t do what we need to do as a CBID without funding, and there is no other way for funding than with an assessment.”
As of the end of July, the CBID had a checking account balance of $65,521. The biggest source of income is $5,410 in monthly rental income from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for the Lion’s Den building in the district. The biggest expense for the CBID is a $4,810 monthly loan payment to First National Bank of Fort Smith.
The board’s approved motion will not guarantee an assessment. It merely authorizes the board to look into what can be done and start making plans to organize a petition signed for one. The board also passed a motion to obtain counsel to help them proceed with plans to levy an assessment.
Some questions the board agreed they need to answer through a study session on the matter include:
• How much of an assessment would be levied;
• What programs the assessment would support; and
• What would the budget for those programs would be.
According to state law, there are two types of assessments that can be levied against real property inside a city’s improvement district — a project/improvement-specific assessment, levied to fund a “specific ‘plan of improvement,’” or a supplemental annual assessment to be used for ongoing operations or maintenance activities, Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said in a memo to the board dated Aug. 16.
The project-specific assessment can be used to for on one or several major improvement projects. This type is “implemented by filing the assessment of benefits to pay for the improvement(s) with the city clerk, who then puts it in front of the City’s governing body to adopt by ordinance,” the memo said.
ASSESSMENT APPROVAL PROCESS
Before an assessment can be levied, more than 50% of property owners in the district must sign a petition agreeing to an assessment. The CBID board would then present that petition and the plan to the Fort Smith City Board of Directors. Dingman said under the state law if the CBID has the required signatures on the petition, the city’s BOD would be compelled to approve the assessment as an ordinance.
Based on property valuations as of July 28, each 1-mill assessment on properties within the CBID would amount to $38,834.47 in annual operating revenue, the memo said. A half-mill assessment would amount to $19,417.23 in annual operating revenue.
Bill Hanna, CBID board chair, said the Fort Smith CBID is one of the few in the state not funded by an assessment.
“Our mission over the past couple of years has been to improve landscaping, to pick materials, help kind of determine the developers path to building something we all can be proud of. However, we have not been able to do much in regards to programs, projects that require capital beyond our pockets, and that’s why we want to talk about this,” Hanna said.
Hanna said members of the board visited other business improvement districts to see what they have done with assessments and noted that with the help of the funds generated from an assessment, the districts have been able to greatly improve their downtowns.
White suggested funds could be used to start an ambassador program like the Little Rock Partnership program. The Little Rock program began in 2017 with two people hired by the organization to provide assistance to visitors and residents and report maintenance issues in Little Rock’s central business district around Main Street. The program was expanded in September 2018 to the River Market District. Ambassadors are easily identified by specific uniform shirts and caps.
“Ambassadors could patrol the streets to help with safety issues, but they would do it with a smile and would be able to help. Their hats say ‘ask me,’” White said.
The ambassadors would be a great help during festivals and events, even helping with traffic issues. They also, on an everyday basis, would promote the district and downtown Fort Smith, he said.
UPTOWN PROJECT, GROCERY STORE
CBID board member Rodney Ghan suggested assessments levied could raise money to help provide incentives to new business coming downtown or maybe for property owners to make improvements to their properties. Ghan had earlier in the meeting presented landscaping and covered parking plans for the Uptown project at 901-911 Garrison Ave. for approval by the board. His plan was approved.
The Uptown Courtyard will include 12 upscale, one-room apartments with retail space below. Ghan said at the meeting he would be interested in providing incentives for a grocery store to go into some of that space if there was a way to do so. Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown, said the nonprofit organization had been approached by two different parties interested in the possibility of operating a grocery store downtown.
In a CBID town hall meeting early this year, a number of people said a grocery store was something needed downtown. However, Richardson said, most of the people responding to the survey at the town hall were not people who live or work downtown.
“Only four people who responded to that lived downtown,” Richardson said.
In order to provide interested parties with more current and accurate data on the need and want for a grocery store downtown, 64.6 conducted another survey that targeted business owners and residents in the area. The organization sent out 500 surveys. They received back 150 completed surveys.
“It is not great results, but it’s better than what we had,” Richardson said.
Of those responding 72.6% work downtown (within two miles from Garrison Ave.), 7.53% live downtown and 19.86% work and live downtown. Many of those who work downtown said they would likely to shop at a downtown grocery store before going home after work. A majority of the respondents (54.11%) said they would spend $200 or more per month at a downtown grocery store.
The majority of those completing the survey (84.93%) said they would prefer to have a small traditional grocery store rather than a bodega/boutique or ethnic market, Richardson said. Quality produce was the most requested product from the grocery. Richardson said 64.6 would share the survey findings with the interested parties immediately. The survey was completed Aug. 16. Of the two interested parties, only one has experience in the grocery industry, Richardson said.