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Clearly, Minneapolis is in trouble. Two Star Tribune stories in one day — “So much of transit crime ‘open'” and “We need action, we need help: a plea from Uptown” — show just how dire the situation is.
There is a tool used by over 1,000 US cities. New York has 74 of them. Los Angeles has 41. Milwaukee has 25. Minneapolis has one, just downtown.
This is the business improvement district, or BID.
What is a business improvement area? In 1967, a commercial business district in Toronto’s Bloor Street neighborhood was trying to figure out why malls were doing better than they were. They came to three conclusions: 1) Malls have someone responsible for public space between businesses, 2) malls have coordinated security programs, and 3) malls have coordinated advertising and promotions.
They decided to provide these things for themselves. They created a non-profit organization controlled by businesses to provide eyes on the road – the road ambassadors. Ambassadors are a physical presence that is a deterrent to crime and makes the space safer. They cleaned and maintained the public space, making it feel safer and more inviting. And they sponsored coordinated marketing programs to bring more people into the trading district, which further improved safety.
These programs are controlled by the businesses themselves and are hyperlocal, responding precisely to the needs of each location. Over time, they can evolve, depending on what that exact location needs to thrive.
Bloor Street businesses asked the city to establish a tax zone so that all businesses that benefited would pay the cost of the BID. Businesses decide what services they want and how much they need to charge to pay for those services.
BIDs also usually receive financial assistance from the city, foundations, state or provincial governments and increase their income.
A wealth of research shows that BIDs reduce crime and increase business growth. However, Minneapolis is one of the few major cities that has not embraced the BID model. Instead, it has Special Service Districts (SSDs) with taxing districts to pay for Public Works to provide sidewalk snow removal and street cleaning and nothing else. There are no eyes on the road. There is no marketing. No crime prevention activities. None of the benefits of BIDs.
And perhaps even more importantly, none of the benefits of organizing business leaders to identify what they need and provide a means to protect those needs.
In a city that is drowning, it seems ridiculous to continue to ignore a proven strategy to reduce crime and grow businesses. Public Works should get out of the SSD business completely. The city’s economic development department, CPED, should create business improvement zones throughout the city, giving business groups tools to fight crime, increase wealth, control public space and heal the community.
The prayer from Uptown should not be ignored.
Carol Becker lives in Minneapolis.